Robert Doisneau: I go to Paris every day, but I can’t get rid of the impression that I’m a visitor. My suburban childhood sticks to my skin. Paris was on the other side of the city walls. I used to watch the yellow tram going by, the number 93 from Arcueil to Chatelet, with my nose pressed to the window pane. Robert Doisneau, born Gentilly 1912, died Montrouge, 1994
Robert Doisneau’s father was a plumber, and lived at 8 Avenue Raspail, Gentilly. When Robert was four his father was killed in the First World War. His mother died three years later, and he was brought up, it is reported, by an ‘unkind’ aunt. In his teens he was sent off daily for four years to study and practice engraving at the Estienne College in Paris. Wanting to be a photographer, he detested it. (Although the engraving skills did become useful when, as part of the Underground Resistance, he forged documents during the war).
In the 1930’s he was employed at Renault’s Billancourt works in west Paris, taking industrial photographs, at which he was very good. He was there for five years. A combination of not liking the work that much, and having sympathy with the grievances of the Billancourt workers meant he branched out in the late 1930’s as a freelance photographer, working for the Rapho Agency.
He and Pierrette, his wife, married in 1936 and moved into a flat at 46 Place Jules Ferry, Montrouge in 1937. It remained the family home up until their deaths. Robert died six months after his wife, who he had been caring for. She had had dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Their two daughters were brought up at 46 Place Jules Ferry. The front of the flat looks out onto a small park. Since his death it has been renamed Square Robert Doisneau.
The immediate suburbs of Paris, historically were, and still are, different from the suburbs of London. The London Underground and the London suburban railways spawned a genteel suburbia. The Paris suburbs were different: a mixture of muddy fields and industry, the other side of the remains of the City Wall, that writers like Celine had bitter memories of: shanty towns of the nineteenth century that survived into the 1970’s, and beyond. Or shabby industrial areas with wasteland and workers flats that would not have been out of place in the former Eastern Block.
Nearly all his working life, Robert Doisneau’s patch was Paris and the suburbs. He caught the fleeting moments (at 1/15th to 1/125th of a second) of mostly the everyday pleasures of the people (despite the adversities of poverty, and – from the 1940’s onwards – the Le Corbusier inspired barracks in the sky).
But there was a darker commentary to his photographs, as well. Doisneau, like Jaques Tati – who he photographed – was for the human being, and against enviroments that de-humanised their life, whether in the workplace or where and how they lived.
The City Walls that Doisneau remembered as a young orphan have gone, replaced by another barrier – the roaring Peripheral Dual Carriageway, that effectively cuts the inner suburbs off. The traffic of Paris, and the Le Corbusier inspired barrack housing were snapped by him from the late 1960’s onwards. His photographic commentary was not so different from Jaques Tati’s in Mon Oncle and Traffic.
In his Breathtaking Memories, reproduced in Robert Doisneau: For Press Freedom, published by Reporters Without Frontiers, Paris, 2000, Doisneau wrote:
One day… I came upon a brand-new concrete neighbourhood and waited there, as I did everywhere. (To take a photograph). Nothing happened. I wasn’t going to take pictures of vertical perspectives or look for ornate effects. All right, people are out during the day, so I would have to wait for the evening. Lights went on without my noticing a living soul. The residents had slipped into their underground car parks and been sucked up by their lifts, managing to return to their televisions while remaining invisible…
However, there is a tension in his work. The concrete neighbourhood he mentions above is within Paris. He continues to write how good it is to get back to the humanity of the suburbs. Yet one thing the Peripheral Road does not segregate are barracks in the sky, and the roads that radiate off the Peripheral Road cut through these same suburbs.
Towards the end of his life there were other stresses. One, which was a reflection of the changing times was when a couple wrongly claimed in the early 1990’s that they were the subjects in his La Baiser de l’hotel de ville (The Kiss) and took him to court for cash. It caused Doisneau a lot of heartache. The case was eventually thrown out. The real couple were Francoise Delbart and Jaques Carteaud, and had been asked by the shy Doisneau if he could photograph them. (He had spotted them kissing). As they said later, the embrace was re-enacted, but the kiss was real. An irony, that wouldn’t have been lost on him, was that the The Kiss and The Kids in Place Hebert, two of his best known photos, were taken within the city. But city or suburb, like his contemporary photographic chroniclers of Paris – Izis and Willy Ronis – he has left us a collection of life affirming work, whilst highlighting also the sometimes hostile environment those living in Paris and the suburbs experience.
Sources Robert Doisneau, Peter Hamilton, Cartago, London, 1992; Doisneau Paris, Brigitte Ollier, Hazan, Paris 1996; Robert Doisneau: For Press Freedom, Reporters Without Borders, Paris, 2000 (English language edition); The Other Side of the Camera, Arnold Crane, Konemann, Koln, 1995. All Robert Doisneau photographs are copyright Robert Doisneau/Estate of. All Arnold Crane photographs are copyright Arnold Crane/Estate of. Pete Grafton photos: with photographer I.D.: free dissemination for non-commercial use; for commercial use contact Le Patron.
Robert Doisneau’s photographic collection is administered and promoted by his daughters, Annette and Francine, from 46 place Jules Ferry. (Other children who look after a parent’s photographic collection are, amongst others, Anthony Penrose (Lee Miller) and Russell Burrows (Larry Burrows).
For information about Reporters Without Borders: http://www.rsf.org