Monday, 30 June 2008

Profile: Robert Doisneau

Kiss by the Hotel de Ville 1950 - Image by Robert Doisneau

French photographers have had an immense influence over photography, producing a number of photographers who have revolutionised the visual and philosophical areas of the medium. Many also took stylish image that remain truly iconic images of the era they were taken in. One of the most iconic photographer of the 20th century was French photographer Robert Doisneau whose work from the 1930's onwards captured the spirit of French society at that time.

Born in 1912, Doisneau originally trained as a lithographer before taking up photography in 1929. Wandering around Paris, the photographer would take images of the everyday life of Parisians which over the years built into a formidable collection of images. His career as a professional photographer became in 1934 when he was employed by the Renault car company as an industrial and advertising photographer. This position lasted until 1939 when Doisneau decided to become a freelance photographer - sadly the war got in the way of this new career move, with the photographer serving in the French army until 1940.

During the occupation of France by the German army, Doisneau worked for the Resistance helping to make false identification papers using his lithographer training. Even during this dark period of French history, Doisneau managed to create images that reflected a resistance to the German controlling influence over France. The images also focus on the look of the city and how people lived with the barbed wire and uncertainty. My favourite image from that period is of a couple, obviously in love, who hold each other with a barb wire fence barrier in front of them. It's as though the wire represents how they have divided themselves off from what is going on around them. During the liberation of Paris, Doisneau photographed the resistance at work creating underground newspapers and erecting barricades. The images of the resistance people themselves are even more fascinating. Most are young and have a look of fierce determination on their faces.

After the war, Robert Doisneau continued to work for various magazines including Vogue who he worked for until 1952. During the day he would photograph fashion and the prosperous and at night he would turn his camera on the basement jazz clubs and there habitues. The subject were worlds apart. It is during this early post war period that Robert Doisneau produces some of his best work. France like many countries was trying to understand its role in this new world - the ways of the pre-war world seemed outdated and irrelevant. No photographer has ever managed to capture the spirit and character of a nation as much as Doisneau's images do. Each photograph has so much detail in it that you can look at an image several times and see something new each time. Humour is often a key ingredient in the images with the shop window photographs being a prime example of Doisneau's talent to capture life's humorous moments.

By 1953 Robert Dosineau had left Vogue and become a freelance photographer. He would remain a freelancer for the rest of his life. The 1950's were the last great decade for photography. After that, a slow but visible decline in the magazine market started to take affect having a detrimental effect many photographers who couldn't get work published. The human interest story was also on the decline as decorative commercial photography started to become popular. Television also started to take its toll on photography preferring more neutral images to the human interest kind. Exhibitions were getting fewer and fewer and a new breed of younger photographer started to enter the scene. Doisneau decided to return his favourite subject matter - the streets of Paris; the people and the scenery.

In 1975 a retrospective of his work started to build Doisneau reputation again and by the beginning of the 1980's Robert Doisneau had become a media star. Distinctions, exhibitions and a range of books and postcards helped the photographer reach new audiences, but by the start of the 1990's a degree of disillusionment had started to creep in. Doisneau believed that Paris had changed beyond recognition; the people and places....HIS places..... were no longer the same. "Photographers have become suspect" Doisneau commented in 1992, "The magic has gone, its the end of 'wild' photography, of those who unearthed hidden treasures" In 1994 Robert Doisneau died but his legacy remains in the terrific images he took. The Kiss image, seen at the top of this post, is his most famous image but Doisneau's collection of work remains remarkably varied. His photographic work was unique, as was his ability to capture the day to day way of life with so much passion and character.

All Images by Robert Doisneau
  • Top left - Robert Doisneau
  • Middle right - Love and barbed wire, 1944
  • Middle left - The sidelong glance (Romi's shop), 1948
  • bottom right - The Pack, 1969

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