by Jean-Claude Gautrand
'The Luck of the Stroll'
Review by Bruce Robbins
If ever a better phrase was coined to describe the fortuitous concurrence of events that leads to a successful street photograph, I’ve yet to hear it. Jean-Claude Gautrand’s chapter heading, "The Luck of the Stroll," sums up perfectly the urban snapper’s mindset when he takes to the streets, camera in hand.
It also encapsulates rather neatly the approach of Robert Doisneau as he sought to record the ever-changing scenes on the boulevards and by-ways of his beloved Paris.
Doisneau was one of a number of photographic luminaries– flaneurs–who walked the City of Light last century, defining in their black-and -white images a Paris long since gone but one which every modern-day traveler seeks to reinvent.
Few were able to impart as much of their own personality to their work, however, as Doisneau. His impish sense of humour is clearly evident in many of his best-known photographs and yet, like many humorists, there was a melancholy side to his personality. His obvious joy at the city’s delights was tinged with sadness, particularly towards the end of his life.
For Doisneau, the Paris he loved had, by the 1980s, changed forever.
The suburb of Sarcelles for example, ten miles north of the Ile de la Cite, had become “an idiotic backdrop where one can no longer play, a hard mineral backdrop. You can scratch a heart into the soft plaster of Montreuil but not into the concrete of Sarcelles.” In 1984, jointly commissioned along with others to photograph Paris, including Saint-Denis and his birth-place of Gentilly where he took most of his early images, he remarked, “Cement has replaced the plaster tiles and wooden hutments. There’s nothing to catch the light.”
Born on April 14, 1912, in an area of Paris now bordering the peripherique to the south of the city, Doisneau didn’t have to struggle as hard as some of his contemporaries for recognition. He gained a diploma as an engraver/lithographer in 1929 but turned his attention almost immediately to photography, becoming assistant to photographer Andre Vigneau two years later. The following year saw his first success when the newspaper L’ Excelsior published a series of images taken in a flea market.
Doisneau was up and running. He won a Kodak prize in 1947 and just four years later was exhibiting with Brassai, Willy Ronis and Izis at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Countless other publications and exhibitions in Kyoto, Rome, Beijing and Tokyo were to follow.
The contemporary “in your face” type of street photography–more like muggings with a camera–would have been alien to the modest and respectful Doisneau. He recognized his reluctance to approach people too closely, particularly in the early stages of his career, but saw it as a virtue. He said, “When it comes down to it, constraint’s no bad thing. My shyness censored me and I took people only from a distance.” Although he tended to get a little closer in later years, he always tried to place the people in the context of their background–and with a backdrop like Paris, who could blame him?
Gautrand’s book contains most of Doisneau’s best photographs and a short biography in English, French and German that’s full of little anecdotes giving an insight into the artist’s character. Amongst the photographs is the famous series of the nude painting in the art shop window (The Sidelong Glance—Romi’s Shop) attracting furtive attention from male admirers. The background to his famous “Kisses” images, most of which were staged but went on to become a success in the US and France, is also explored.
I love so many of the images in this book that it’s difficult picking personal favorites, but "Georges Braque at Varangeville" (p. 147), "Bassin de la Villette" (p. 102/103) and "Rue des Ursins" (p. 54) are particular highlights.
A few famous faces—Simone de Beauvoir, Orson Welles, Jacques Tati—can be spotted in the book's 192 pages, but it’s the ordinary people of Paris who take centre stage—a fitting metaphor for a city Doisneau thought of as a theater. “One of the greatest joys of my career has been to see and speak to people I don’t know. Very often these simple people are the sweetest souls and generate an atmosphere of poetry all by themselves,” he said. “I took a mischievous pleasure in spotlighting society’s rejects, in both the people I took and my choice of backgrounds.”
Towards the end of his life, one can sense a feeling of disenchantment creeping into Doisneau’s otherwise sunny nature. Just two years before his death in 1994, he said, “I’m not so welcome now. The magic has gone. It’s the end of ‘wild’ photography, of those who unearthed hidden treasures. I have less joy within me.”
It’s interesting to note that Doisneau used a Rolleiflex in the early and middle parts of his career. Quieter though perhaps otherwise less unobtrusive than Cartier-Bresson’s Leica, it offered higher technical quality and this sharpness and richness of tone are evident in the book’s warm-toned reproductions.
Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz were, for me, the big three of Paris photography but I’ve always leaned towards the wit and humour of Doisneau.
Gautrand’s excellent book serves only to affirm that preference.
Bruce Robbins is a reporter for two Scottish newspapers—The Courier and the Evening Telegraph, both Dundee-based. He's also been a photography nut for 30 years and has a blog which focuses on taking pictures with Pentax digital and film cameras. He lives in Carnoustie but is working on an escape route to the South of France.
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