April 1: Fooling

Date #1April 1: It’s April Fool’s Day, an appropriate time to consider the truth or falsity of images.

Robert Doisneau (1912–-1994), the famous humanist photographer of the postwar period provides an excellent case study. As Robert Hirsch (*1949) points out, Doisneau called himself a “fisher” of pictures of Parisian culture captured from amidst the stream of life, on the street, where, he said, something was “always happening”, and “no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find.” Doisneau’s reputation is as a candid street photographer in the mode of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images à la sauvett (the ‘hasty’ image, or ‘grab-shot’). In the majority of cases that is so, and he was certainly blessed with the “velvet hand” and a “hawk’s eye,” but the story of how he made some of his most famous photographs is more complicated. Let’s not hesitate to dissect these iconic images!

His best known picture, Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville photographed (significantly in April) in 1950, was published as part of an essay in LIFE magazine of 12 June 1950. The copy reads “It goes on all day, this public kissing…and all night too […] Photographer Robert Doisneau […] took the unposed pictures on these pages…”; presenting the now famous picture, tightly cropped to near-square for the article, as just one of a number of “unposed” street photographs of young love.

LIFE magazine June 12, 1950 “Speaking of Pictures…In Paris young lovers kiss wherever they want and nobody seems to care”, photographs by Robert Doisneau. The shot now known as Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville, cropped to square is top centre.

American readers of LIFE, then numbering around 24 million for the 8 million copies printed weekly, bought the whole myth, perhaps subconsciously associating the article with an ad on the same page for an electric kitchen clock, via references to time; long kisses timed by Doisneau’s long exposure for the headline image, as he discusses in the caption, and another caption ‘seven minutes later’ on page 3, below.

Detail of page 3 of LIFE magazine June 12, 1950 “Speaking of Pictures…In Paris young lovers kiss wherever they want and nobody seems to care”, photographs by Robert Doisneau.
One of a pair of shots, with the above, from page 3 of LIFE magazine, June 12, 1950 “Speaking of Pictures…In Paris…” with photographs by Robert Doisneau who is quoted as saying “I could have taken a hundred pictures without them noticing it.”

A 1990s (failed) court case over the identity of the couple in Le Baiser, and their claim for payment for posing, revealed it to be a posed reconstruction of a scene he had witnessed but had not been able to record. However as much as Hirsch is right in asserting that public belief in the authenticity of street photography, and by association all documentary photographs, was challenged, that was not true of audiences at the time; it was a process not underway until after the publication of Sontag’s On Photography twenty-seven years later. The revelation brought by the court case merely confirmed a dawning realisation amongst audiences who were becoming more sophisticated, and less credulous, in their reading of photographs.

Doisneau’s use of models for these pictures was justifiable. Raymond Grosset‘s (1911-2000) Rapho agency, for whom Doisneau freelanced, could pay generously for such stories if bought by American magazines which could pay twenty or thirty times more than anything he could get from a French publication. However the whole LIFE story itself is a fabrication, based on a myth that Parisians were shockingly more sexually liberated; it sold magazines, and in order to fashion as desirable a product as possible, the magazine’s team of editors relied on photographers like Doisneau to furnish them with high-quality material.

Doisneau worked with paid models because any couple he photographed candidly might turn out to be clandestine lovers and cause trouble. That French society of the forties was almost as prudish as the American was apparent from an earlier picture shoot from which come two have also become iconic: La Dame Indignée and Le Regard Oblique.

Robert Doisneau (1948) La Dame Indignée
un regard oblique,  1948
Robert Doisneau (1948) Le Regard Oblique.

Le Regard Oblique was also published by LIFE on 23 May 1949 as part of a series that appeared earlier than the one of the kissing couples, and also in the magazine’s regular section “Speaking of Pictures”. Like Le Baiser it is set in a recognisably Parisian location and features a man and a woman who are obviously a couple.

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Spread from LIFE magazine 23 May 1949 “Speaking of Pictures…painting produces acute reactions on Paris Left Bank. Pictures by Robert Doisneau with the shot later named La Dame Indignée as opening image.

The copy of the LIFE article again encourages a sense that the production of the series was quite happenstance, and candid;

Into the window of his store on Paris’ Left Bank the proprietor of Romi’s antique shop last month put two paintings. In the center of the window, in the place of prominence, he stood a painting of a nude getting into her bath. To the side, in a less conspicuous position, he hung a 50 year old untitled work by an artist named Wagner. It depicted a lady, unclad except for black stockings, peering through a partly opened door at an apparently unexpected visitor. The painting’s price was 20,000 francs (about $75). Before very long the proprietor found that he had made a misjudgment. The center painting was being neglected, but the Wagner picture was stopping the most blasé Left Bank passersby in their tracks. Observing this, a photographer named Robert Doisneau set up his camera back of the window and proceeded to record the surprise, puzzlement and delight of his fellow Frenchmen as they suddenly saw the painting. His pictures prove beyond dispute that people found the painting highly interesting but so far nobody has offered 20,000 francs for it.

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Second spread from LIFE magazine 23 May 1949 “Speaking of Pictures…painting produces acute reactions on Paris Left Bank. Pictures by Robert Doisneau with the shot later named Le Regard Oblique, cropped to vertical, at bottom
Crapouillot, January 1960. Edition “History of Love in France”

The couple are looking in the window of antique dealer cum reporter for Paris Match and the risqué Crapouillot Robert Miquel (1905-1995) known as Romi, a friend of Doisneau. His antique shop, now occupied by the dealer Oscar Graf, was at 15 Rue de Seine in the 6th arrondissement, and as we can see in the picture, was opposite the outlet of a quite upmarket corsetry fitter. A collector and connoisseur of erotic art, Romi would have enjoyed collaborating with Doisneau in setting up the sexual and voyeuristic tension produced by an impression of the photographer having caught his subjects unawares through the window of his shop.

Around this picture has been built a whole iconology of the gendered gaze, first extracted from it by Prof. Mary Ann Doane (*1952) in her Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator in which she argues that instead of thinking about female spectatorship, as Laura Mulvey (*1941) does, as a question of active or passive, we should consider that ‘for the female spectator there is a certain overpresence of the image—she is the image.’ Le Regard Oblique, Doane argues, narrates a ‘dirty joke’ to which only the woman in the photograph is oblivious, and that “the image is not readable by the female spectator— it can give her pleasure only in masochism;” the joke is on the woman, is the woman…the man regards the nude as a sex object while his wife, ignorant of his gaze, stands as an obstacle between him and the nude.

The photograph, which hides the viewer themselves behind glass as a voyeur, partakes of the objectification of women which was then regular fare in cartoons of the era…

New Yorker 1948.jpg
Whitney Darrow, cartoon from The New Yorker, 1948

However the evidence of the marginalisation of the female gaze found by Doane, and others including Griselda Pollock, cannot be as easily extracted from Une Femme Indignée, which depicts a woman reacting with  melodramatic shock to the painting, and that is not the only image, amongst the whole series shot by Doisneau, of women looking at the nude in the painting.


Commentators, including Doane, fail to notice (though the fact is mentioned in the LIFE article) that the woman in the painting is engaged in scopophilia herself as she peeps through a crack in a door…in the direction of the window-shoppers! Here’s the canvas with the perspective distortion removed…it’s certainly not great art and is possibly by a moonlighting member of the Wagner family of porcelain painters of Royal Vienna.

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It is also possible to determine what was the painting at which the woman in Le Regard Oblique was looking with such intensity (right). A hasty portrait that Doisneau made in front of Romi’s antique shop shows the owner standing with mutual friend the journalist Robert Giraud (1921–1997), who, living rough at the time, incidentally introduced Doisneau to the clochards (tramps) that he famously photographed.

The curtain in Le Regard, appears on the right, consistent with the shots being made from the window at left as seen here. The elaborate gilt frame containing the nude would be visible beside Romi’s hat, but it appears that there is a different painting in place for this shot, and in the other window we can make out a painting of women with parasols on a garden path, backlit by the sun, alongside an Incan artefact and sculpture of a standing woman.

Robert Doisneau (1948) Romi and writer Robert Giraud in front of the shop at 15 Rue de Seine.

This outside view of the shop presents the technical difficulties that would have confronted Doisneau in making his series of pictures. The interior of the shop is dark. The Rue de Seine runs NNE toward the Seine and would be lit by oblique sunlight from 11:00 am. The lighting on the Ceinturerie opposite varies between direct sunlight, rainy overcast and indirect sun, so it appears that the shooting session took up most of a day, or even several, an impression confirmed when one notices that in some shots there is a pot plant in the window which is replaced by an empty vase in others.  However the window-gazers’ faces would have been in shadow, and though some exhibit a little side-lighting, it does not illuminate their features and the expressions which play such an important role in this mime.


Doisneau has had to light the faces of his subjects, but at the same time avoid reflection of the light itself in the window glass. In Le Regard there are hard shadows projected from the rim of the man’s hat onto his forehead and there is a short shadow under the woman’s nose. In all the pictures there is a specular reflection on the gilt frame around the nude painting, but no trace of direct light on the back or top edge of the painting facing the window.


38f062e2349e86f6455a6f5b4cfecb0c.jpgIn the frame in which the disapproving gendarme appears, the shop opposite is lit by strong slanting sunlight which reflects off its windows onto the pavement, and it also illuminates the frame of the unseen painting which we see reflected in the glass against the dark uniform of the policeman. So strong is the backlight that there is a little halation around the man’s head and shoulders, and yet we can still read detail in the highlights of the Ceinturerie facade. The luminance of the man’s face is only a stop less than that of the shop in the background, so the light from inside the antique dealer’s window is almost as strong as sunlight. It is placed to the right of camera, at just above the level of the lens. Either it is a very strong and glaring spotlight, or it is a flash. In either case the subjects would have been only too aware of it shining right in their eyes. In only one shot (above right) does the subject shield their eyes however; in another humorous hint at male faithlessness, a man carrying a bouquet for his wife stops to ogle the painting. That flash is used seems more likely.

If we remember that Doisneau was careful to use paid models for the kissing couples series, he may also have done so here, given the reactions that candidly-shot subjects would be likely to have in seeing themselves in the company of a nude painting.

Isn’t it likely then, that Doisneau has had us fooled again? The mise-en-scène is so well prepared, the expressions are so melodramatic, and the people of ‘types’ so cliché that they might have come from Central Casting; it all makes one suspect that is so….no fooling!



7 thoughts on “April 1: Fooling

  1. Great blog post, and a clever ‘set-up’ by Doisneau (if it is so)! Given the difficulties of reliably capturing spontaneous street events with an analogue camera, I’m not at all surprised that some of his photos were recreations of observed (or imagined) events!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! The majority of Doisneau’s street photography is of course completely candid and not set up, though like Cartier-Bresson he would anticipate opportunities. But these two commissions for LIFE just *had* to work – photography was his only means of living after being fired from Renault for being too often late for work – and he was ingenious and conscientious in making sure of it. He makes it look easy and due, by his own account, entirely to the way he got on with people and could happily persuade them to be photographed (failing that, as in ‘Le Baiser…’, he paid them), but his work is a tribute to what is the actual work of photography in carrying ideas through. He’s a brilliant example in so many ways.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed, he is a brilliant example and an inspiration too. I have dabbled in street photography and appreciate the difficulties, lately using a series of film cameras and (for me!) it’s a very hit and miss affair. I can only imagine *having* to get the right shots under pressure. Whether photographs like this are posed or not is no problem for me, I appreciate them anyway. My only problem lies with implying a photograph is candid when it is not. It still doesn’t take away from the artistry and skill of the photographer though. Many thanks for sharing! I’m learning all the time :-).


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