A Tale of Two Kisses: Eisenstadt in New York, Doisneau in Paris

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.

There are several ironies. The couple were indeed strangers, as the photo suggests and as everybody always assumed. What’s not been known (certainly not to me) is that the sailor was on a first date with the girl he eventually married, and his future wife is in the photo, about 10 feet behind him (over his shoulder). Another small irony is that the sailor—who had seen combat in the Pacific and seen nurses at work—kissed the girl, not because she was the first pretty girl he saw, but because he thought she was a nurse. But she wasn’t. She was a dentist’s assistant. For more, you can read the somewhat hyperbolically titled book, The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II.

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.

And the historical moment was perfect. It’s the historical moment that raises this photo from excellence to greatness. Learning that she’s not a nurse but a dental assistant diminishes the significance or resonance of the photo a little, but only a little. After all, the sailor, the key figure in the photo, didn’t know that. And through him, it becomes a photo about the passion with which a nation greeted peace after bloody war. I could get all Jungian and start talking about Mars and Venus but it’s not necessary. This was a news photo, after all. All you needed to know was the headline and the photo did the rest.

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. 

This has long been one of my favorite photos (mine and the rest of the world’s). I’ve known the story about it from one of my very favorite books: Hans-Michael Koetzle’s Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, volume 2 (1928-1991), published by the great photo book publisher Taschen. (You can buy this book from Amazon now for the absurdly low price of $7!) A similar account is given in this article online. The photo itself is included in Doisneau’s own wonderful little book, Three Seconds of Eternity. (I own it but it’s apparently out of print).

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.

The choice

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.

NOTE: I blogged about Doisneau before, at WordPress, here. I don’t know why so many of the photographers I love the most — Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Lartigue — are French, but they are. 

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