Transcending Reportage to Fine Art

In the history of photography, a medium that arose in the 20th century and came to gain prominence as a means of documenting society, several renowned French artists are remembered for helping transcend the medium’s primary focus on reportage to one that was capable of creating captivating works of fine art that showed an emotional life.

Discovering the Beating Pulse of Parisian City Streets

From the annals of French photographers, one legendary figure is Robert Doisneau. He helped usher in a golden era of classic photojournalism combined with an evocative visual language of poetry. Doisneau began his career as a lithographer and engraver but is remembered for using his Leica camera to record the everyday street scenes of Paris. Active from the 1930s to the 1960s, Doisneau’s celebrated post-war photographs captured spontaneous and emotionally engaging images that acted as a buffer to the chaos and suffering produced during the war. His pictures depicted a Parisian society emerging from the plight of the Second World War to a newfound collective consciousness determined to rebuild a communal life, embarking on a visual voyage to discover the beating pulse of Parisian city streets.

Initiating the Humanist Movement

His pictures depicted scenes from everyday life, such as a couple kissing in public, a dock worker gazing at posters of pin-up models, a newlywed couple cheering at a bar, or street children posing for the camera. With characteristic empathy and humor, Doisneau captured candid moments in his pictures, but most importantly, his attitude emphasized an underlying human connection between the image and the viewer. Doisneau would help initiate the Humanist movement in photography that would bear witness to the universal humanity intrinsic in all of us regardless of hierarchical distinctions.

“Photography and the modern city came of age together. Unlike the small town, where everyone knew everyone, the streets of the city seemed to offer anonymity to those who wanted it, and a constant parade of subjects for those behind the camera.” – Mary Warner Marien, 100 Ideas that Changed Photography.

The Early Years

Robert Doisneau was born in Gentilly, France, in 1912. His parents passed away at a young age, so the young Robert was raised by his aunt. In 1925, he began studying lithography at the École Estienne in Paris. Shortly after that, he started working as a studio assistant for the newly opened photographic studio of the school. Fascinated by photography, the legendary artist’s earliest images would reveal his shyness as a teenager. He took pictures of cobblestones and a fence riddled with posters, not lifting the camera from the ground to capture passerby, as he is so fondly remembered for now.

Immortalizing the City of Lights

In 1931, he would become assistant to modernist photographer André Vigneau. This event would introduce him to the artistic avant-garde of the time. With Vigneau, Doisneau would learn of the work of artists Germaine Krull, Kertész, Man Ray, and Brassaï. In 1932, he purchased his first Rolleiflex camera and began combing the streets of Paris, photographing, albeit from a distance, the people and scenery of the city. Doisneau started to take pictures of Parisian street life and continue in this milieu for the rest of his life. Ultimately, he produced one of the most iconic bodies of work that would immortalize the city of lights. Doisneau would help define the pictural narrative of an eternally enchanting Paris that was profoundly nostalgic yet simultaneously modern and ever-changing.

“I remember Paris with caps and bowler hats, Paris in the days of upheaval, humiliation, collaboration, Paris with its whores and its secrets, Paris defended barricades, Paris wild with joy- and now we have a car-packed, scheme-laden, jogger-happy Paris.” – Robert Doisneau.

From Car Manufacturer to Vogue

Robert Doisneau’s earliest work was as an industrial photographer at Renault, a car manufacturer, in 1934, although this did not fulfill him. In 1939, he was hired by Charles Rado to work in the Rapho photographic agency, where he would travel throughout France creating picture stories. At the Rapho Agency, he began to make his first memorable street photographs. Before he could move onto independent photojournalist work, the war broke out, and Doisneau served in the French army until 1940. After the German occupation of Paris, he would later work for the résistance creating forged documents for the underground. After the war in 1949, Doisneau would sign a contract and become a staff photographer for the illustrious Vogue fashion magazine.

“There are days when the technique of an aimless stroll – without timetable or destination – works like a charm, flushing out pictures from the non-stop urban spectacle.” – Robert Doisneau.

Robert Doisneau, Le Petit Balcon, 1953, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Robert Doisneau, Le Petit Balcon, 1953, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Le Petit Balcon

As part of an ongoing interest in capturing the boisterous energy within the cabarets and nightclubs throughout the city, Robert Doisneau photographed Le Petit Balcon or the balcony on Rue de Lappe in 1953. The photograph captures, most likely a performer, resting her arm on an amusingly surprised patron. As the patron’s face suggests a whimsical and slightly flirty moment between the two, the lady next to him, perhaps his wife, frowns sternly at the performer sitting on the ground. The other guests in the backdrop enjoy and grin at the humorous nature of the environment. This image is symbolic of Doisneau’s humor, capturing a light-hearted moment of mischief and laughter.

Stopping Time

The ultimate joy and reward of being a photographer is the ability to stop time for an instant. Doisneau could never be rushed and lost his industrial job for not adhering to a schedule. His pleasure was transferred onto photographs. He enjoyed life and being open to its transient and more nuanced moments. His eyes and Humanist approach gave the photography world many delightful gifts, one of them being Le Petit Balcon.