Robert Doisneau: A Photographer's Life

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The first authorized biography available, Robert Doisneau provides an intimate rich account of the life of the French photographer who captured the streets and elusive spaces of Paris as the city entered the modern era. Drawing not only upon Doisneau's previously unpublished archives but also on conversations with the photographer in his final years, this book examines every aspect of Doisneau's work, including the techniques he used. Emphasized are his periods of engagement with the birth of photojournalism in ...
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Overview

The first authorized biography available, Robert Doisneau provides an intimate rich account of the life of the French photographer who captured the streets and elusive spaces of Paris as the city entered the modern era. Drawing not only upon Doisneau's previously unpublished archives but also on conversations with the photographer in his final years, this book examines every aspect of Doisneau's work, including the techniques he used. Emphasized are his periods of engagement with the birth of photojournalism in the 1930s; with humanist social realism in the 1940s and 1950s; and with montage and art brut in the 1960s. The photographs, made by Doisneau on his own and while working for Vogue, Life, and other well-known magazines, reveal how the familiar is swept away, a theme germane to city-dwellers everywhere.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this first authorized biography of the French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912-94), many of his photographs are reproduced for the first time. Doisneau didn't like to travel; he found his images mostly in his own "backyard," the banlieu that defines the nearby outskirts and suburbs of Paris, especially Montrouge, where he lived with his wife of over 60 years (she died six months before him) until his death in April 1994. His two children assisted the author with this work. Photography was Doisneau's effort toward immortality, "the refusal to entirely disappear." Waiting for just the right moment, he recorded thousands of ordinary people doing ordinary and extraordinary things in the course of their day-to-day lives. Doisneau explained his motivations: "And it's better, isn't it, to shed some light on those people who are never in the limelight?" Hamilton (Doisneau: Retrospecive, St. Martin's Pr., 1993) traces modernist influences on Doisneau, notably the illustrated magazines, like Vu, Regards, and Match, that popularized "humanist" photography, and includes a chapter on technique. This important book, with its excellent reproductions, should be added to all photography collections.-Kathleen Collins, New York Transit Museum Archives, Brooklyn
Gretchen Garner
Quintessentially French, photographer Robert Doisneau (191294) spoke no other language and never photographed outside France's borders. Considering himself a latter-day Atget possessed of a far finer sense of humor, he roamed the streets of Paris and its working-class suburbs, looking for the amusing or simply human moments that he loved. His most famous picture, showing a young couple kissing on the street, contains the sum of his interests in pleasure, the city, and common human emotion. Communist in his sympathies, Doisneau was never overtly political in his work; indeed, he began his career working for the industrial giant, Renault. He soon went freelance and highly prized the freedom to go his own way. He never had or wanted a specialty, yet most of his best work is social documentary concentrating on the ordinary French. He also did fashion photography and portraits and even produced children's books, using his own daughters as models. Hamilton's lengthy, copiously illustrated, authorized biography affords an impressively complete look at the life of a warm, delightful mid-century photographer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789200204
  • Publisher: Abbeville Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 9.75 (w) x 12.88 (h) x 1.63 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Preface to Robert Doisneau: A Photographer's Life

The first time I met Robert Doisneau, I arrived encumbered (as usual) with camera bag and unwieldy tripod, cassette recorder, and notebooks, along with a couple of books I wanted him to sign. We said bonjour, shook hands, I mumbled something about being enchante to meet him. We were going to another room to conduct the interview: he simply picked up my heavy tripod without further ado and walked off with me. He was always like that, totally lacking the carapace of celebrity, always kindness itself, always concerned in the most profound sense with the well-being of his companions. Quite recently, one of his friends in Montrouge, Madame Figon (a neighbor since the 1930s), told me that she remembered seeing Robert going out often on commercial assignments "laden like a plumber" with so much equipment he could hardly walk. Once he had been struggling up the stairs at the RAPHO agency with his kit when all of a sudden somebody came up behind him and took the heavy camera bag he was toting. "It was Cartier-Bresson. He said, 'Do you mind if I help you?' I must have looked like an ant carrying an enormous load. I rather regret all that, because physical tiredness limits your sensitivity."

Later that day I made a portrait of him as we were talking, the first of many I would make over the next four years, until the last day we saw each other, just before he entered the hospital. Like the first, this last image (pl. 455) seems to me to capture the sense of complicity I felt immediately with him, and perhaps he with me. There were things I felt we shared-losing our mothers as children, spending our youths being trained as letteringartists, living in the suburbs of large cities.

Doisneau once said, apropos of his portrait sessions with Picasso, that he came away from the experience "lightly sprinkled with gold." During our firrst conversation I became aware that a similar effect was occurring for me, as I was drawn into the charmed circle of his acquaintance. He had the ability to make anybody feel they were an old friend after only a short time. I was later to discover that was how he had made so many of his pictures. Friends of his would recall that once you were with Doisneau you completely forgot that he was photographing you, so fascinated were you by what he had to say, by his natural charm. Without any malice, Doisneau stole your picture from under your nose. When I read that his friend Jacques Prevert had once described him as a braconnier (poacher), I thought at first that it was just a literary conceit. Only as I came to understand more about Prevert's total opposition to any intellectualization of his writing did I realize that he had captured the essence of Doisneau.

Prevert's insight into Robert's character explains in part why his photographs have such a strong and universal appeal, for he worked far more with his personality than with the apparatus of photography to record his images. In photographic parlance, film is referred to as a "sensitive medium." It took me a little while to appreciate it, but I eventually realized that for Robert the concept was much broader than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry, and that trying to understand his approach had very little to do with how he used a camera and film. His perceptive sensibilities worked on several levels at the same time, and he recorded not just the latent image of his subjects with his camera, but other latencies: the sounds of their voices, the smell of the streets, the textures of the surroundings. He could-some sixty years after the event-still recall the exact location in the streets where a photograph was made, the first names of the people with whom he had exchanged a few words as the almost silent shutter of his battered Rolleiflex let the briefest flash of light onto the film. For at the same moment, the encounter left an indelible record in his memory.

Photography was Robert's chosen weapon in a struggle with mortality, or as he put it, "the refusal to entirely disappear." His photographs may seem deceptively simple, almost naively so, for he followed in the footsteps of Eugène Atget. Yet his vision, as conveyed there, is layered with complex meanings. He saw, in the unpromising surroundings of workaday Paris and his native banlieue, an exotic fauna apparent to almost no one else: ordinary people, workers, shopkeepers, lovers, families, children, the old, sideshow barkers, minor artists, eccentrics, barflies-even tramps and petty criminals. It may seem remarkable that a man who hated foreign travel-who once said, "If I leave my Montrouge I am lost"-could create an oeuvre of appeal to people throughout the world. But his obsession with a relatively precise terrain was proof of neither xenophobia nor narrow-mindedness, though it probably does explain why his work took so long to be recognized as being at the highest level of the art of photography. The simple fact is that Robert found so much within this narrow space that he could never exhaust its possibilities.

By a series of happy coincidences my first meeting with Robert, which I had hoped to turn into a collaboration on a short book about his work, evolved into the preparation of a major retrospective, presently touring the world, for Oxford's Museum of Modern Art. It allowed me to visit him often in Montrouge and to gain a deeper insight into his perspective and his manner of working. I tried to reconstruct his life for this book, as it was so obvious that it was his existence that he had photographed. The process involved a great many conversations, from which all quotations not otherwise credited derive. The book thus mimics the process by which Doisneau's pictures were made, for although some were taken without the knowledge of their subjects, and others were set up using models or friends, the vast majority could only be produced because Doisneau was willing-even eager-to be part of the social activity that they record, a participant-observer of the world in which he lived. That is why, in the end, a book like this can only scratch the surface of both his life and work, merely suggest its flavor, in the hope of whetting the appetite of the reader to look more closely at what Robert Doisneau made.

Because the period 1945-60 was so important for him, his experiences and friendships of that period overlap several chapters (four through seven), appearing to confound the chronology that is otherwise linear. Yet the richness of this period simply seemed to require a more thematic treatment. Such doubling back and crisscrossing perhaps reflects or mimics the course of Doisneau's career and influences: as he once said, his life was a series of fortuitous encounters, events spontaneously giving way to one another. With any luck the order I have imposed upon that life in the writing of this book does not do great violence to its reality.

As the curator of his retrospective, and more recently as his biographer, I came to know Robert Doisneau both as a man and as a photographer. It is clear to me that few other photographers have lived their work in the same way. His pictures are the record of encounters with literally thousands of people, many in the suburbs near his home or in Paris itself, others among the literary and artistic elites of modern France, still others in towns and villages all over the country, where his work as a freelance photographer took him. All are the product of a very special vision.

I think that Robert, if he had lived to see this book appear, might have written a preface in which he gave some guidance to those inspired by his work to take up photography. I would therefore like to give him the last words, ones I found in an interview of 1972 with a young journalist, Patrick Cazals, with whom two decades later he would make a film about his life:

A lot of young people come to see me, all with grand ideals. Their hopes? Instant fame, a thousandth of a second, immediate success. The press photography world (and it's always there that they want to start) is cruel. They need to learn how to fish with a float, rather than with a fly. To have patience, to wait for something to bite, to stay three hours in the same spot. It's wrong to give them such high hopes. They go from Mickey Mouse and Tarzan to that. Straight into enormous disappointment. They ruin their families buying equipment and spending money on lab costs, but they end up without any technical expertise. They have cameras with light meters inside them, wonderful darkroom equipment . . . everything is easy nowadays. But nobody tells them how hard this business is, that you have to be ready to go at a moment's notice, and also to have personal convictions. Moreover, if a photo goes wrong, it's no great tragedy! You should be able to laugh at yourself, to be ironic about your own career, to be attentive as well, to eliminate the superfluous. And last of all, don't be in too much of a hurry-be generous with your time.

—Peter Hamilton

Oxford, England, 1995

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Table of Contents

Preface 6
Ch. 1 Childhood: 1912-1929 9
Ch. 2 Apprenticeship: 1929-1939 33
Ch. 3 The War: 1939-1944 75
Ch. 4 After the War: 1945-1955 111
Ch. 5 La Banlieue de Paris: 1945-1950 145
Ch. 6 Pecheur d'Images: 1945-1960 181
Ch. 7 The Complicities: 1945-1960 241
Ch. 8 Changing Perspectives: 1961-1978 279
Ch. 9 Return to the Banlieue: 1978-1994 325
Appendices
Acknowledgments 360
Doisneau on Technique 361
Doisneau's Systems of Classification 368
Notes 371
Exhibitions 375
Works Cited 376
Bibliography 377
Index 379
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