An Early Pioneer of Photojournalism and Street Photography

French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912–1994) was an early pioneer of photojournalism and street photography. He was known for his poetic and humorous approach to the medium, recording everyday life in Paris and its suburbs. Although he photographed many significant figures such as Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso throughout his prolific career, his images of the French everyday life often in playful and surreal ways have earned their iconic status.

Les Banlieues de Paris

Born in 1912, Doisneau initially studied engraving and lithography at the École Etienne in Paris. He took on amateur photography during his teenage years and began working professionally in the field upon graduation. His first job was with the advertising photographer André Vigneau, through whom he met artists and writers with avant-garde ideas. He sold his first photo story to Excelsior newspaper in 1932, photographed both the occupation and liberation of Paris. From 1945 onwards, he started anew with magazine and advertising work including fashion photography for French Vogue. His photo book titled ‘Les Banlieues de Paris’ published in 1949 was his first (and considered his best by many) photo book which brought him wide fame.

Humor and Humanism

What made the photography of Robert Doisneau unique was his exquisite sense of humor and deep-felt humanism. Often catching his subjects unaware, he had the ability to transform even the most mundane, everyday moments into extraordinary images. A shy figure himself, Doisneau captured candid, spontaneous moments that evoked a sense of relatability. He would say that:

“‘the marvels of everyday life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”

Although motivated by a spirit of spontaneity, Robert Doisneau also valued the idea of the ‘decisive moment’, just like his great influence Henri Cartier-Bresson. In his photographs, he preferred black and white film and was especially recognized with his use of natural light, which gave the images their added depth and authenticity.

Robert Doisneau Tinguely, Portrait de l'artiste, 1959, Silver gelatin photograph
Robert Doisneau Tinguely, Portrait de l’Artiste, 1959, Silver gelatin photograph

Tinguely, Portrait de l’Artiste

His famous portrait of Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely from 1959 titled “Tinguely, Portrait de l’Artiste,” is one of the great examples of Doisneau’s unconventional and often ironic approach to photography. In the image, Tinguely is photographed standing next to one of his kinetic sculptured called ‘metamatics’ in the middle of a street in Paris. Tinguely was a surrealist and would make sculptures that when turned on would eventually self-destruct. This transformation provides the subject of Tinguely’s portrait. To the left side of the picture, we see the sculpture with the Eiffel Tower in the background. An impeccably dressed Tinguely appears on the right, however, the smoke coming out of the sculpture covers Tinguely’s entire head, making him an anonymous figure. This is the exact opposite of what a traditional portrait photograph would look like, yet it perfectly merges portraiture and Doisneau’s playful street photography style with a hint of the surreal. The rich contrast and deep blacks further enhance the cinematic character of the shot, complimenting the subject within the frame.

A Lasting Impact

The impact of Robert Doisneau on both 20th century and current day photography is undoubtedly profound. His ability to transform ordinary moments in everyday life as well as capturing the essence of Parisian-ness has birthed countless, timeless images, continuing to influence generations of photographers. As a humanist, post WWII he had a positive outlook on life’s small, as well as large moments. He has been awarded numerous prizes and recognitions throughout his lifetime. Two years after the Second World War he was awarded the Prix Kodak. In 1984, he was appointed Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honour and was also granted an Honorary Fellowship by The Royal Photographic Society in 1991 before passing away in France in 1994. Doisneau has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Witkin Gallery in New York.