Robert Doisneau’s Contact Sheets

Yesterday, Google celebrated Robert Doisneau’s centenary (100th anniversary of his birth) with a doodle. In the doodle was the famous Doisneau photo — Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville — an internationally recognised symbol of young love in Paris. Here’s its contact sheet.

Also, there was an interview in Doisneau in that marvelous series, Contacts.

The above photo seemed like a testament to spontaneity of a street photographer — that of someone who just happened to look up from his Pernod, say. Let me disabuse you of that notion. Doisneau had seen the man and woman days earlier, near the school at which they were studying acting (as it later transpired). He was on assignment for Life magazine in 1950, for a story on romance in Paris, and hired the couple as models for the shot.

That he hired them and who the couple were, however, were not brought to light until the early 1990s, when lawsuits demanding compensation were filed by several people who claimed to be the models in the famous picture. Their names were Francoise Bornet and Jacques Carteaud.

Doisneau later came to hate the photo’s fame; as he saw himself as a realist — “a brutal thief of images”, he resentedhis reputation as a romantic photographer that this photo brought.

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How It First Appeared: Not Even the Largest Photo in the Story

Un Regard Oblique

No other photograph was this thoroughly analyzed — or, overanalyzed. The above photo, Un Regard Oblique, has been a fixture in sociology, psychology, psychoanalysis, and gender studies circles since it was taken by Robert Doisneau in 1948.

A couple looks at the window and the man is enthralled by the portrait of a naked woman (very salacious one  by the standards of the time) while his wife talks to him about a photo which is presumably more modest. A simple image, but not quite a decisive moment.

For his Life magazine assignment, Doisneau hid his Rolliflex behind an antique chair on display at Romi’s art gallery in the 5th arrondissement. With his usual flair for humor, he had set his camera at the correct angle to the nude to take a series of furtive photos of male admirers. The above photo was his last shot.

Many scholarly articles written about it followed the example of this intricately written piece from 1982 by that great pioneer in film-gender studies, Mary Ann Doane:

“The photograph appears to give a certain prominence to a woman’s look. Both the title of the photograph and its organization of space indicate that the real site of scopophilic power is on the margins of the frame. The man is not centered; in fact, he occupies a very narrow space on the extreme right of the picture. Nevertheless, it is his gaze which defines the problematic of the photograph; it is his gaze which effectively erases that of the woman. Indeed, as subject of the gaze, the woman looks intently. But not only is the object of her look concealed from the spectator, her gaze is encased by the two poles defining masculine axis of vision. Fascinated by nothing visible — a blankness or void for the spectator — unanchored by a ‘sight’ (there is nothing ‘proper’ to her vision — save, perhaps, the mirror), the female gaze is left free-floating, vulnerable to subjection. The faint reflection in the shop window of only the frame of the picture at which she is looking serves merely to rearticulate, en abyme, the emptiness of her gaze, the absence of her desire in representation.

“On the other hand, the object of the male gaze is fully present, there for the spectator. The fetishistic representation of the nude female body, fully in view, insures a masculinization of the spectorial position.”

Actually, that is just a tenth of what she wrote. The full article is called, ‘Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator‘.

Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville


Although not as iconic as Alfred Eisenstaedt’s the sailor kiss on the V-E Day, Robert Doisneau’s “The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville,” taken on a Parisian street in 1950, is considered one of the most romanticand popular photos ever taken. Although Doisneau worked in Paris as a street photographer and stole many an intimate moment of Parisian couples, this classic shot was staged. However, this fact didn’t prevent the picture from gracing the walls of many freshman dorm rooms since its first production in 1986. More than 500,000 posters and 400,000 postcards have been reprinted from the original.

The picture was taken for a photo spread about Paris lovers for Life magazine, but the image stayed in the archives of Doisneau’s photo agency (Ralpho, which benefited greatly from this single picture) for more than 30 years before it was commercialized by a poster company. 

The picture’s success sparked controversies when several couples claimed that they were the subjects and sued Doisneau. In 1993, a former actress, Françoise Bornet sued Doisneau for $18,000 and a share of the royalty in the image, by claiming she was the women in the picture. The case was dismissed, but Doisneau admitted that he, Bornet and her boyfriend Jacques Carteaud staged the photo. The couple who would later separate were the students studying theater when Doisneau approached them.  Doisneau reflected, “I would have never dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.”