They are two of the greatest photos of all time; certainly two of the most famous: Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo of the sailor kissing the “nurse” in Times Square on VJ Day (1945), and Robert Doisneau’s photo of the couple kissing near City Hall in Paris. My assignment: compare and contrast. Between them, they say a lot of what there is to be said about photography.
Taking: Eisenstaedt in Times Square
Eisenstadt’s photo was taken almost seventy years ago this month, in August 1945. The identity of the sailor and the nurse were a mystery for a long time, but fairly recent research has solved the mystery. This short article at the New York Post site summarizes the high points.
|Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time-Life. Click here to view on Time-Life’s website.|
Anyway, it’s a heckuva kiss, and a heckuva a photo. It’s certainly one of the greatest demonstrations of the old saying “F/8 and be there!” meaning, “Have your camera set to a safe aperture and be in the right place at the right time. Now, I don’t want to take one iota of credit away from the maestro here. Not only does he get credit for being there, he gets every credit for the shot. I might mention that kissing is hard to photograph well and convincingly. That said, even a genius has to get lucky now and then, and he got very lucky with this shot. If he’d been standing anywhere else, this would not have been the great shot that it is. The perspective is perfect. The pose is perfect. The background is perfect.
Making: Doisneau in Paris
Less luck was required for Doisneau’s famous kiss photo: Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (“Kiss in Front of City Hall”). Less luck—but a little more work.
|Doisneau’s Kiss (1950). This image is borrowed from a WordPress blog of Iconic Photos. Doisneau’s home site seems to be here (French language).|
Doisneau’s kiss looks, if anything, even more spontaneous than the one in Eisenstaedt’s photo. Koetzle writes (p 75):
At the exact center of the photograph is a young couple, about twenty years old. Quite frankly, there is nothing at all striking about them…. Approaching from the left, the couple is moseying its way down the busily populated street. The man has placed his right arm around the girl’s shoulder. Spontaneously—so the picture suggests—he pulls her toward himself and kisses her on the mouth. None of the other pedestrians visible in the picture seem to have noticed the sudden testimony of love. At most the observed in the foreground witnesses the little scene. The consciously chosen ‘over-the-shoulder’ shot, to borrow a term from film-making, suggests this at least.
So the man just turned to the girl and gave her a kiss. Unlike in Eisenstaedt’s photo, there is no historical context at all. The photo was taken in no particular year (1950) on no particular day. The fact that the kiss occurs on the street in front of City Hall simply emphasizes, by way of contrast, the fact that this is a moment of extraordinary intimacy. This kiss occurred in the open in the center of the city, and no one paid attention. No one except the couple and the photographer—and us.
I said Doisneau had to work harder for this photo than Eisenstaedt did. Eisenstaedt had to be there, of course, had to see the photo happening and snap the shutter, but then he rushed on to take other photos. On the other hand, as Koetzle explains, the Doisneau photos were taken on assignment for Life magazine, which wanted a series on lovers kissing in Paris. We know from the outtakes and from subsequent information provided by the models, that the couple were actors, that Doisneau had in fact hired the couple and paid them, a fact that saved his legal derrière when the models sued him for lost royalties. According to the girl in the photos (named—what else?—Françoise), Doisneau photographed them in a few different locations. In short, all this spontaneity was made. Posed. Set up.
Does that diminish the photo? Not in my eyes. In fact, it almost proves what a great artist Doisneau was. This photo illustrates beautifully the old saying ars celare artem, “The art is in hiding the artistry,” or, The trick is to make it look natural.
So what’s it to be for us photographers? “F/8 and Be there”? Or ars celare artem—work your ass off but make it look accidental? These are the positive and negative charges in the mysterious force of photography: taking and making. I’m going to stop here, but I want to note that between these two charges lies nearly the whole craft and art of photography.