Robert Doisneau

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Robert Doisneau was born in Gentilly, Val-de-Marne, a suburb of Paris, France, on 14 April 1912. Doisneu’s father died in active service in World War I when his son was just four years old. His mother died when he was seven, and he was subsequently raised by an unloving aunt. At the age of thirteen, Doisneau enrolled at L’École Estienne in Chantilly, studying engraving and lithography. Upon graduation found his degree useless, the trade being on the decline.

In 1930, he began to embrace photography as a hobby and would wander the streets of Paris recording daily life. He was reportedly so shy that he began photographing cobble-stones before progressing to photographing children, and then building up the courage to photograph adults. In 1931, he became a camera assistant to the sculptor and photographer, André Vigneau. In same year, he sold his first photograph to the newspaper L’Excelsior. However, his experience in Vigneau’s studio was cut short by an impending military service.

In 1934, Doisneau found work as an advertising photographer at a Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, and it was there that he had his formal training in photography. He was drafted into the Second World War, in 1939, fighting first in the army and later in the Resistance. Throughout the war, he used his skills as an engraver to forge passports and identification papers as well as photographing Paris through its stages of Occupation and Liberation. When Paris was officially liberated in 1944, he was one of the only photographers there, and he captured many, now famous, pictures of euphoric Parisians.

Some of Doisneau’s most memorable work was made after the end of the war, when he began selling his work to LIFE magazine and other international magazines. Doisneau gained recognition with his post-war photographs, using a Leica camera on the streets of Paris to capture humanist compositions. Perhaps his most famous image is Le Baiser de L’hotel de Ville (Kiss by the Town Hall), an apparently candid image of a couple stealing a quick kiss on the busy Parisian streets. In 1946, he joined the French photography agency, Rapho, and stayed with them, despite being asked by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum Photo Agency in 1947. He felt his roots and home in Paris were more important than international assignments or achievements.

In the 1950s Doisneau became active in Group XV, an organisation of photographers devoted to improving both the artistry and technical aspects of photography. Between the years 1949 and 1956, Doisneau published six books of street photography, showcasing his modest, playful, and ironic images of amusing juxtapositions found on Parisian streets. However, interest in his work faded from the 1960s as the French lost their taste for his distinct style. He continued to work, however, and produced advertising work and celebrity portraits for the next few decades. He spent most of his life in Montrouge, Paris, and died there on 1 April 1994, leaving behind 450,000 negatives.