If you want to see something differently, then read the writings of Tintin Törncrantz. In this age of jabbering hysteria and the sound bite you will be calmed, then entranced and often amused by his subtle linking of numerous strands of history and art, to create a fascination with something that previously seemed to hold little interest. You will find none of the art catalogue jargon here, only the erudition and skills of the essayist who knows what we need to know about everything from a chair to a photograph of a brutalist shopping centre. His writing has a quality and insight we must always find time for.
– Kevin Wright
Kevin Wright is a musician living in London.
Tintin Törncrantz is a writer and a critic who lives in Stockholm and writes for a much bigger world.
MARVELLING By Tintin Törncrantz
Seeing sometimes means constructing a little theatre with the materials at hand, and then awaiting the arrival of actors … From experience, I know that the show is always livelier on the poorer outskirts of town. These settings testify to mankind’s struggle. They’re full of nobility because everyday acts are carried out simply, and the faces of people who have to rise early in the morning can be very moving – what a lesson in vitality we get from young women heroically putting on make-up at dawn every day before rushing to the metro. It’s enough to melt your heart.
– Robert Doisneau
The octaves leaped from clapper to clapper as all the church bells of Paris poured out their splendid shakes. Now, for the first time since the summer of 1940, the city sang, it really sang. This Thursday evening, on August 24, 1944, General von Choltitz telephoned Berlin with the handset raised against the sonorous Parisian sky. Close to midnight there was only one bell left chiming, the mighty Emmanuel in the south belfry of Notre-Dame, our Lady. A newspaperman from Le Figaro witnessed the city’s overnight transition as he was leaving the Hôtel de Ville – the City Hall where the Allied troops strategically camped out – the following morning, and found himself “submerged by an enormous crowd that was everywhere, on the streets, the quays, the boulevards, the passages. They applauded. They shouted. They stamped their feet. They cried. On one of the tanks, surrounded by the din of motors and smoke, a cat, a miniscule little cat, calmly sat surveying the scene. The crowd roared their approval. That was what this unique day was like: one part exuberant celebration, exalted, delirious, an incredible lightheartedness that poured out in song, kisses, in unbound joy; the other part, a climate of civil war.
“Paris was imagined as a heroic society, a place of extraordinary deeds,” argues Rosemary Wakeman in her book The Heroic City: Paris 1945–1958. “The media spectacle crisscrossed between journalists and participants. Celebrity was for the taking. Public space became a stage for outpourings of public emotion and zany performances that were impulsive, reflexive, and fame seeking. In the photographer Robert Doisneau’s visual portrait of the Liberation, spontaneous rumba lines snake through the streets, young men stripped down to their shorts frolic in the fountains at the Place de la Concorde, people dance impulsively – together, alone – and wave, wrap themselves in, parade with the French Tricolour. The Liberation was […] a seizing, a dizzying transformation of the everyday. Life was reformed, reformulated in a playful speculation on what it might be.”
Susan Sontag noted in Regarding the Pain of Others that, “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and death.” Robert Doisneau (1912–1994) was much rather like that cool cat on the army tank, part of the scenery, basking in the hubbub of life, extracting its unknown beauty. For half a century he wandered through the city and its forgotten suburbs. It was in the areas of life where people were doomed to carry on and accept the lousy plots they were given that Doisneau acquainted himself with humanity’s most imaginative powers. The object of Doisneau’s photography is in itself a dizzying transformation of the everyday. “Marvelling is a mission that few photographers have chosen,” he told Frank Horvat in November 1987: “The world I was trying to present was one where I would feel good, where people would be friendly, where I could find the tenderness I longed for. My photos were like a proof that such a world could exist.”
Some existential juice from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) to begin with: “A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well – or ill?” You only have to go to Kulturhuset (the House of Culture) in Stockholm to see Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb – a show sharply and lovingly curated by Atelier Robert Doisneau in Montrouge (where he lived) and produced by diChroma Photography in Madrid – to conclude that this champion of humanist photography did incredibly well. As William Blake put it in his days: “As a man sees, so he is.”
“Robert Doisneau is one of the modest masters in the history of photography. He is also a photographer with a lot of humour, and he is of course very, very famous for his romantic Paris pictures – the famous The Kiss picture that everyone is asking for – but this exhibition presents Robert Doisneau in a different light,” says Maria Patomella at Kulturhuset, who likewise had a poster of this well-known/hackneyed Doisneau picture Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville in her teenage room. The Kisswas an arrangement with two paid actors smacking away on rue de Rivoli (with the City Hall and Notre-Dame in the background) for a series of kissing couples for Life magazine in 1950. The Kiss is luckily concealed in the only showcase, where you can contemplate the two ominous “faces” that appear in the picture’s lower left corner.
When the fallen major-league gangster Henry Hill goes to Hell in Scorsese’s definite masterpiece Goodfellas (1990), he doesn’t end up in prison but in suburbia. In the film’s end scene, he opens the door to his Witness Protection Program nest to retrieve the morning paper in his light blue bathrobe, makes eye contact with the camera while his voiceover says: “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook.” The saints and the sinners of suburbia were the people most worthy of Doisneau’s camera eye: “I look like them, I speak their language, I share their conversation, I eat like them, I am completely integrated into that milieu. I have my own work which is a bit different from theirs, but perhaps I am sort of representative of that class,” he said. “In those ordinary surroundings which were my own, I happened to glimpse some fragments of time where the everyday world appeared to be freed of its ugliness.”
There are one hundred and one prints in the show, fifty-six of them are from the 1940s and thirty-seven from the 1950s, Doisneau’s greatest decades. Les pavés (1929) is a close-shot cubistic flow of cobblestones, the first picture he ever took and an evidence of both his original eye for the unoriginal and of his early diffidence, notably when it came to approaching other human beings, even kids. There are two tentative photos in the show from the 1930s of children (boys) who are playing alone, or just framed as solitary souls, in which you sense the photographer’s uneasiness about achieving more than a distant frame. La chambre de Gentilly (1930) is a fine composition, lonely and dejected as a Hopper painting, of the room of his younger days in this southern Parisian suburb, just across of what is now the Boulevard Périphérique.
“My own suburb was one of two-storey houses, rather grey and dumb, but full of nooks, recesses, makeshift repairs, inhabited by people living between the street and the bistro. Here and there a small workshop, like my father’s plumbing business. From my window, in the early morning, I watched the workmen coming to be hired, then going out on their assignments. If they had a few minutes to spare, they would have a drink in the bistro, then walk out slightly dizzy, fetch the handcart and be on their way to the job, which was sometimes far off.”
The intention of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1853–70) was not just to make the city more beautiful and airy, but also to clean away the so-called classe populaire from the heart of Paris. The southern suburbs were a little less unattractive than the banlieue nord with its heavy industry. The wastelands of Gentilly were young Robert’s playground – places like the funky Bièvre, a stream straightened up to a canal that the pious used to follow on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and the Zone (where “you went to play, to make love or to commit suicide”) on the “wrong” side of the fortifications that encircled Paris until the late 1920s. It was Doisneau’s mother who gave him the sense of the marvellous. He was eighteen years old when he photographed La chambre with the eyes of the seven-year-old boy whose mum had just died.
Peter Hamilton, who worked with Robert Doisneau for the retrospective at Modern Art Oxford in 1992, writes in his book that a “combination of creativity, chance, play, even désobéissance [disobedience], contrives to produce a magical effect” in Doisneau’s photography: “His vision of Paris is concerned with how it works on a human level […] as an organic whole, a mass of individual activities which generate the life and energy of this city, what makes it real and distinctive, yet at the same time magical and strange, unlike any other place on Earth.” Yes, and Walter Benjamin was right to argue (in The Arcades Project from the 1930s) that, “Parisians make the street an interior.”
“[Parisians] imagined new photos to both capture the world and operate in the viewer’s mind,” suggests Catherine Clark in Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860–1970, “photography, photographs, and modes of understanding them changed how people understood, saw, and acted in the world”. For Doisneau to photograph the city he loved, and the people who acted out their lives there, was a means of possessing Paris as a whole magical theatre: “I feel a vague sense of ownership. I’d nevertheless like to remain one of those rare, broadminded owners who always leaves the door wide open.”
The camera entered Doisneau’s life as an attempted shortcut device for his shyness when he was studying figure drawing in Montparnasse and wanted to snap people on the street in order to draw them from these photographs he nonetheless did not dare to take of them. Doisneau’s callous aunt put the orphan thirteen-year-old in a backwards crafts school for the printing industry. At seventeen, Doisneau was working with professional photo equipment at a graphic art studio in the city. In 1931, he started as an apprentice for André Vigneau in Quartier Latin. This modernist artist and photographer became a very important source of inspiration for Doisneau, “for Vigneau talked to me of another painting, another philosophy, another cinema”.
Robert Doisneau was an avid reader throughout his life and Vigneau introduced him to a host of writers. One of them was the great Jacques Prévert: “Prévert taught me to have confidence in the discovery of everyday objects which people didn’t see any more, because they were contemptuous of them, too used to them. He found ordinary words, used every day, and presented them to people as if they were precious jewels. And he loved to play, to discover new things […] Jacques would ring up and say, ‘Do you know the street where they unroll the big lengths of plywood near the Faubourg St Antoine?’ I would say, ‘Yes,’ and he would say, ‘No you don’t, come and get me and we’ll go there.’ So we would go and look at this, there would be whole logs of this stuff, we’d take in the sound of the work, the colour of the wood, the smell of the sap and the look of it as it came out.”
Doisneau did not “shoot” people. Although he could photograph Paris and the Parisians with divine reckless abandon (and thankfully he did), he was at the core of it all – and in his own words – a pêcheur d’images. That the gentle fisherman of images was fascinated by Brassaï’s Paris de nuit, which came out in 1933, is evident from the selection at Kulturhuset. The essence of the pictures in Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb is an almost metaphysical day-for-night mood. From the time he met his favourite drinking buddy Robert Girard in the late 1940s (Girard was a poet of sorts), there was a change to real-night photography where Doisneau was moving with grace through some darker areas of life among the nocturnal animals of lowlife Paris: “When I am in horizontal position, my brain gets irrigated, like the cork of a wine bottle that’s laid flat. That activates my imagination and stimulates my desire to go out and use my mind. So I rise and go out, eager to see and to marvel.”
From 1934 to 1939, he was hired by Renault as a photographer at the factory on the Île Seguine, not far from where he lived, a period that Doisneau claimed was “the true beginning of my career as a photographer and the end of my youth”. It was not the outbreak of the war that got him fired from Renault but his constant late arrivals a common theme in his professional life). There were always too many photographic distractions occurring on his way to the plant, and besides, at home, he was rather perfecting his method of doing colour prints in the kitchen lab than getting a good night’s sleep. Doisneau and his wife Pierrette had moved into a new building at 46 Place Jules Ferry (the little park in the middle bears his name today) in Montrouge, a suburban area just south of the Périph. This was where he, true to his mission, was to live for the rest of his life.
Doisneau had just joined the Rapho agency when the Boche began to march in September 1939. His more than dormant nature of disobedience, in combination with what was developing as a case of tuberculosis after six insufferable months as a foot soldier, made the army decide that they had had enough of him too. Assailed by Stuka dive-bomber planes, Robert and Pierrette Doisneau and two million other Parisians, two-thirds of the city’s population, formed the exodus towards safer areas of France in June 1940. The couple returned to Montrouge near the end of 1940.
In 1942, Doisneau was commissioned to photograph the country’s foremost scientists for a book – Les nouveaux destins de l’intelligence française – committed to show that la France, in spite of the Nazi Occupation, was not on its knees. The same year he took the metaphorical Resistance picture Le cheval tombé with his Rolleiflex camera, an image so beautiful and perfect in everything that it has the looks of a tableau vivant. The passersby are gathering on the street in a communal spirit to help the fallen horse get back on its hooves. The white horse, gleaming with light, is almost like a Christ figure here, like the severely abused donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966). The thing about Doisneau’s photographs is that they almost never resemble the imagery of the French masters of film, whereas “Doisneau” vibrates all over in their greatest pieces essentially from the 1930s and the 1950s.
The Boche called Paris “the city without eyes”. The Parisians refused to even look at their oppressors. “Every morning the Germans paraded down the Champs-Élysées in full uniform with military bands playing and flags flying. Huge swastikas hung from buildings and monuments. In a slap in the face of French sensibilities, even the city’s clocks were set to Berlin time. Street and direction signs were in German. But scenes of hideous repression – neighbourhood hunts and arrests, unmitigated violence and cruelty, the roundups of Jews – were the real public spectacles,” writes Rosemary Wakeman. “Suffice it to say that the graffiti, the jeers and taunting of German officials, the public singing of the ‘Marseillaise’, the distribution of tracts, the surreptitious honouring of key dates in the nation’s history, the displaying of the V sign for victory, the protest marches and demonstrations constituted an extraordinary and highly dangerous public theatre in their own right.”
The French term for the early stages of World War II was the Drôle de guerre. The French army outnumbered the Wehrmacht’s divisions by far but the Gallic rooster was all pomp and circumstance, ignorance and inertness. On June 10, 1940, the Government retracted to Vichy in the midst of France and declared Paris an open city. Four days later the Boche owned the city. They put a big V and a huge banner on both the Eiffel Tower and the Palais Bourbon: “Germany Wins on All Fronts.”
In 1941, Doisneau found something that was “guiding me to my seat during the horror film of the German Occupation” – his place in this Phoney War was to produce fake documents (“identity cards, Ausweisen, passports, false papers for Jews”) for the underground Resistance movement. There are only a few pictures in the show from the days of the Occupation. From 1944 and on, it is like Doisneau was processing this horror film in his mind through his camera; the pictures are as mournful as they are masterful.
The incredibly melancholy La pleine lune du Bourget (1946) depicts a steamy locomotive on the turntable in this railyard with nine other iron horses behind, all panting and waiting to be turned around, for these engines could only go in one direction. That these kinds of locomotives were about to disappear at the time when this picture was taken is only half of the story. Gare du Bourget was the station from which the French Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
He cherished the mishmash of these northern suburbs as well: “I always came back to Saint-Denis, even though it’s a long way from my own suburb. This community is an extraordinary mixture, exactly the kind I like: people from all origins, a basilica where the kings of France lie buried, a Communist town hall twenty metres further, a canal, a motorway, some huge public housing projects and endless rows of small suburban houses. It’s the juxtaposition that fascinates me – in fact, all my photos are self-portraits, in the sense that I always show people living in the same absurd surrounding as myself.”
Somehow Doisneau belonged to the “Bohemian nation” that Jules Romains was describing in his eight-thousand-pages strong Les Hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Good Will, 1932–1946): ”In contact with the enclosure, all around it, a singular swarm had developed, and almost fixed itself. A membrane of population, just half a kilometre thick, but stretched out over thirty-six; a sort of annular city stuck to the other and alive with its residues. The military zone, which forbade houses, tolerated hovels and barracks. A people of irregulars, nomads, fallen, or immigrants waiting, had taken the opportunity to settle there, clinging to the clay, muddy, clandestine, still half-floating, which was gradually sinking into the soil of habits, traditions, rights.”
Doisneau’s 1940s photography is full of extramural life, populated with people living from day to day, half-floating yet fully alive, as the luminous two in La dernière valse du 14 juillet (1949), a tender couple waltzing under the stars. At some other “end” of the city, a group of sideline gardeners is working in a deserted moat in Dans les fosses du Fort d’Ivry (1949). Others, in Doisneau’s considerably more sombre pictures, do what star-crossed people have to do – they live to fight another day.
A highline RER train cuts through the “green” industrial landscape with the Eiffel Tower far off in the distance in La ceinture verte (1949), a picture taken near the Renault plant, and the realism is almost magical here. Doisneau photographed the waterways of Paris – sandwiched between rundown factories and impermanent football grounds or (with a bit of juvenile imagination) African plains, territories annexed by neighbourhood imps – with the embodied feelings of the lovers in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). Juliette wants to escape the barge, she wants the lights of the city, but for Jean this is life itself.
Doisneau photographed houses and buildings like Charles Marville photographed houses and buildings in the 1800s, as if they were (lonely) individuals in their own right. La maison d’Erik Satie (1945) is like a posthumous portrait of Satie himself, twenty years after the composer’s demise. Eighteen thousand residential buildings across Île-de-France (the Paris region) were destroyed during the war, and Doisneau’s pictures of the French capital’s gaping holes have a strong resemblance to how the central parts of Stockholm looked like in the 1960s when the Social Democrats wrecked everything in their way. Doisneau’s 1940s are also full of contrasting vistas of good old Paris versus Soviet-style residential blocks for a dull new world.
“Erecting a barricade meant collectively performing an act that would exorcise the bad old days. There was an explosive desire for joy in the air, one that made every single woman in the stone-passing chain seem beautiful to the beavers building the insurrectional barricade,” Doisneau remembered. “As I pedalled from one working-class quarter to another, from Saint-Michel to Belleville and from Ménilmontant to Batignolles, I noticed how barricades, like mushrooms, always grew in the same spots. Strangely, the chic neighbourhoods of Passy and Monceau were completely free of them – the soil there must have been completely devoid of the spores required for spontaneous germination.”
Doisneau’s Barricade Place du Petit Pont (1944) shows one of those germinated barricades at the beginning of the narrow Rue de la Huchette near Notre-Dame. On August 18, the workers of Paris went on strike. The following day people all over Paris openly joined the Resistance forces together with the police and the Garde mobile to erect barricades and fight the Boche as the Allies were nearing the city. A week later, General de Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées as if he singlehandedly had eradicated the Krauts from the capital. In any case, Paris was free again, if still a turbulent place for years to come. The North American author Saul Bellow called Paris of the time “one of the grimmest cities in the world”. “It was also a moment of vengeance and retribution,” as Rosemary Wakeman explains in The Heroic City:
“German stragglers were dragged out of buildings and beaten by bystanders. French women caught with German soldiers were publicly stripped and their heads shaved, and they were paraded in humiliation through the streets. Avaricious shopkeepers and bofs [black marketers] were rebuked. Locals suspected of collaboration were turnein or gunned down. These acts of community vigilantism were their own form of theatrical tragedy […] Meanwhile, speculators and black marketers scalped everything from cigarettes to penicillin. The nouveau riche, brandishing heaps of bank notes acquired through illicit traffic, bought up everything from families living on the edge of penury […] The malaise deepened. Tempers frayed. Armed robberies became the norm. Fear, pity, and fate were all embodied in the tragic dreams in the streets.”
“Mon cher Doisneau,” Blaise Cendrars wrote him in a letter of March 1949 when they were working on Doisneau’s first book, La Banlieue de Paris, “You are a genius.” Directly after the war, Doisneau started to work for several magazines. One of them was the exquisitely produced Le Point that had a specific theme for each new issue. Another man who thought that Doisneau was a genius was the editor-in-chief at Paris Vogue, Michel de Brunhoff, who had halted the magazine during wartime. Doisneau worked for Vogue for a few years (he also scouted people from the Rue Mouffetard area for Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” project in Vogue), but fashion photography was not Doisneau’s medium (he described himself as “a mixture of rubble and slag”) and he was never at ease with the snotty models during the photo shoots. The photographer used to show up at fancy parties representing Vogue in a rented tuxedo made to fit with the aid of safety pins.
“Sometimes they seem to show nothing other than the poses of a pointless world; but sometimes, in a better light, they seem to illustrate an extremely refined society,” Doisneau said of his Vogue pictures. “With hindsight, I can say why Michel de Brunhoff offered me a contract. I was like a gardener’s son invited to play with the children of the lord of the manor, welcome as long as he brought a new angle to things. In my case, the new angle was guaranteed, because I had never, I mean never, seen such sights.”
Heroic Paris continued to be a place of extraordinary deeds. “How could Paris regain such a high cultural standing so soon after the war?” asks Agnès Poirier in her book about the city’s new golden era at the end of the decade, Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940–1950. “Germany was in eclipse. Russian and Eastern European cultural life devastated, Spain isolated by General Franco’s regime, Italy busy recovering from a generation of Fascism, and Britain as marginal as ever to Europe and intellectual debates.”
“After 1944, everything was political; there was no escape. World citizens of the Left Bank knew this, and they did all they could to question both US policies and the Communist Party’s views. Paris was, for them, both a refuge and a bridge to think in a different way. They opened up the possibility of a Third Way, ardently embracing the idealism of the United Nations and the glimmer of utopia in what would later become the European Union. These pioneers also reinvented their relationships to others,” Poirier continues. “They also proved, with only a few exceptions, to be very hard workers.”
Photography was a vital part of the commemoration when the city celebrated its two thousandth birthday (the Bimillénaire de Paris) in 1951. That year, Robert Doisneau shared the space with Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis, Brassaï and Izis in a show with “outstanding reportorial photography by contemporary Frenchmen” as the MoMA presented its Five French Photographers in the press release. Overall, there is a great sense of communion in Doisneau’s pictures from the 1950s, and he had released the breaks on his bashfulness. His café and restaurant pictures are spheres of loveliness – look at Mademoiselle Anita (1951) at La Boule Rouge, caught in a dreamy instant where her hands are folded like the paws of a cat. And look closely and you see the duplicated image of the photographer in the mirror.
These establishments provided “a better vantage point for taking stock of things” if you were a philosopher with a camera and a great sense of joie de vivre: “So the café was, for me, the reunion of people from different milieus, all of them whom brought together their own ideal. With the excitement of a little wine, these people talked without holding back, without fear of being ludicrous. And what happened was that they really gave of themselves.” One such character was the bowler-hatted Coco (1952) and his forces of potables and friends (the print in the show is unnecessarily cropped though):
“It was Robert Giraud who introduced us in a panhandlers’ bistro on Rue Xavier Privas. Coco didn’t have much to say, though. Solicited by the red wine in front of him, he obligingly returned the favour. The big attraction was to imitate a drum beat on the seat of a stool, pounding out a legionnaire’s chant, ‘Violà du boudin!’ Suddenly Coco would snap to attention, as of back in the Foreign Legion. Everyone present would laugh, which didn’t really bother him. He seemed to enjoy the mockery.”
La cour des Artisans (1953), from the ninth arrondissement, is “a photographic chance” and one of the greatest pictures in Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb. A woman is walking over a courtyard in a shabby setting while the four men on the left are locked in their separate ruminations. They all look like actors in a play, with very little to say about the direction. Doisneau explained it as “A picture that seems to me very curious, very bizarre. If I would have models on my disposal, I would never arranged them like that.” And yet, that was just how many of the French authors of the era arranged the characters in their stories, left on their own devices, with four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.
“Reality does not exist for me. I am a false witness,” says Doisneau while he strikes his Gallic nose and smiles in his granddaughter Clémentine Deroudille’s Le révolté du merveilleux/Robert Doisneau Through the Lens, and this TV documentary from 2016 runs nonstop in the show. Another Pierrette who imbued him with an augmented sense of life was Pierrette d’Orient. Doisneau and Girard followed her for days and they both fell under the spell of this strangely attractive accordionist, who “was a pretty little lady indeed. She delivered her song – always the same slow lament, ‘Tu ne peux pas t’figurer comme je t’aime’ – with complete detachment, with a little contempt even,” Doisneau remembered. “Standing before folks moulded by hard labour, who held their fingers clenched even when at rest, she luxuriated in a sense of idleness. Her catlike nonchalance carried the slightest hint of cruelty. Back in the Middle Ages the spell that woman cast would have sparked a bonfire.”
Pierrette d’Orient plays her number “You Can’t Imagine How Much I Love You” for the butchers from Les Abattoirs de la Villette too, in the café in Les bouchers mélomanes (1953). One of the men looks straight into the camera, as may happen when a photographer asks a tough guy to turn around and love the music. A world that Doisneau adored was Les Halles – there is a series of pictures of Les Halles meat carries in the show – and in March 1969, when this fantastic market was to be demolished, only to be replaced by a freakish shopping mall many years later, he noted that Paris was losing its “belly”:
“I had a lot of friends there. In that village-like quarter I was a harmless photographer considered mildly obsessed. I didn’t like these technocrats’ ideas, with their ‘geometric’ goals labelled profitability, specialisation, division of labour, and efficiency. All of this was in diametric opposition to everything I came to Les Halles at night to seek, everything I was trying to picture. Saint-Eustache, the ‘village church’, was itself a mixture of styles and odours. Incense-smelling Gothic on the inside, celery-smelling Renaissance on the outside. And all around, humanity massed in the glow of fairground lights, rich and poor alike, truck drivers and market porters, butchers and Dior customers, grocers and drunkards. Everyone addressed each other in the familiar tu form, and above all there hovered great gaiety and good will, values that electronic computers cannot calculate.”
But Paris in Doisneau’s photography was never (apart from a few pictures like The Kiss) treated like a museum from the immovable past. His understanding of beauty’s fleeting essence was just as thoroughly existential as his dislike towards the ghosts of the “car-packed, scheme-laden, jogger-happy Paris”. When Jean-Paul Clébert published his Paris Vagabond in 1952, he dedicated the book to Robert Doisneau:
“It amazes me that neither the Musée de l’Homme nor any decent popular geographical magazine ever pays attention to the city populace, ever offers the public at large an ethnographical view of the poor districts, and that the big dailies would far sooner enlighten their thousands of readers on the rites and customs of the Navajo than on those of the oldtimers of Nanterre; and I am likewise amazed that despite the great mass of books – and good ones – devoted to Paris ancient and modern by chroniclers of the weird and wonderful social life of the capital, Parisians themselves remain ignorant of their city, disparaging it or invariably confining their rote thoughts and observations to the poetry of the quays of the Seine and the virtues of the national art museums, finding it bizarre that an ordinary man, but one who knows how to see, hear and smell, and to use his senses like outsize antennae, might still in this day and age bother himself with new sights and sounds, or be aghast, stupefied, dumbstruck, at a complete loss for words and quite unable to sleep until he has raced over to his friends to tell them of his discoveries and drag them along to share and delight in them.”
Doisneau had a joyous memory from his youth. The girl he secretly loved jumped on his bike one day, and off they went into the woods. And for a few rare hours, life was perfect. Doisneau’s photography was his way to challenge time, to preserve life’s perfect moments. Think of his famous picture from 1952 of a caped gendarme who walks by the devilish mouth opening to the Cabaret de l’Enfer in Pigalle and who tries to keep a straight face. Its hilariously wonderful architecture can be spotted among the street scenes of the early 1930s Paris in the remake of Papillon (2017) – today at 53 Boulevard de Clichy you walk into a less attractive Monoprix store.
Doisneau left the door wide open for those on the margin, for those who always found cunning new ways to get through the day. The world he has preserved for us is a world populated with people who dress, who walk, who talk, who are what they think they are.
Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb
until November 25, 2018.
Kulturhuset in Stockholm
Sergels torg, Stockholm city