What with taxes due and the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I needed a post at The Online Photographer to tell me that April 14, 2012, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great French photographer Robert Doisneau. I love Doisneau’s work. I feel a greater personal kinship for some reason with André Kertesz, but I love Doisneau. He is one of the handful of photographers whose work doesn’t just tickle your esthetic fancy but really can make you laugh or cry.
This photo (“Be-bop in a wine shop”) was taken the year I was born (1951). I’ve never seen a print. Are the dancers’ toes (woman’s right foot, man’s left) really cut off? Well, you don’t want to rival God. There are other aspects of the photo that aren’t quite perfect. Nevertheless, it is a gem. I can think of a lot of beautiful paintings but, while I’m looking at it, not one more beautiful than this one. There are other beautiful women in the world — I married one of them! — but while I am looking at this photo, I can’t think of another. But it’s not just a photo of a pretty girl. The man is essential. His gracefulness, his gaze at his partner, his movement, and yes, his blackness, bring the photo to life. She seems to be walking for the photo. He is dancing with joy in her presence. It’s a miracle, a demonstration that life is worth living.
If you read a short article about Doisneau with just one photo reproduced, it’s likely to be “The Kiss by City Hall” (1950). Judging by his absence from many histories, Doisneau isn’t considered one of the Major Figures in the history of photography. But “The Kiss” is one of the most famous photos ever made. It’s also a wonderful shot — and in my personal view, the fact that it was not, strictly speaking, a candid (Doisneau hired the subjects and posed them) doesn’t minimize its loveliness. (For info about the making of the photo, see the chapter on it in Hans-Michael Koetzle’s excellent little book PHOTO ICONS, volume 2, published by Taschen.)
Here’s a real treasure: A YouTube video in which Doisneau himself speaks about the making of half a dozen or so great photos.
I’m strongly tempted to say that it was his good fortune to be taking photographs in Paris in the 1940s and ’50s. At those times, almost anything you might photograph in Paris would prompt a strong emotional response: if it didn’t make you cry, it would make you laugh. I remember visiting France as a boy in 1964 and thinking Paris was a city in a fairy tale. I say I’m strongly tempted, but I try to resist the temptation, because that kind of thinking could easily become an excuse for my own failures. I don’t have the citation to hand, but I recall a passage in Flannery O’Connor’s letters that is apposite. A young writer from a small town somewhere had written to Ms O’Connor saying she (I think the young writer was a woman) thought she needed to move to New York City so she could experience life in its fullness or something like that. Ms O’Connor rightly pointed out that, if you can’t find anything to write about in a small town, you won’t be helped by New York City. See also: Marple, Jane. So, no excuses for me. Still, I wish that Dallas had more coffee shops, perhaps its own version of the Tuileries or Champs d’Elysées, or a larger-than-life-size replica of the Eiffel Tower.