In the minds of many visitors, Paris is summed up by a single black-and-white photograph: A couple kissing on a street corner, the Hotel de Ville towering in the background, the rush of the stolen moment emphasized by the passage of beret-wearing Parisians in the street. Paris in Liberty, the new exposition at the Hotel de Ville, celebrates Robert Doisneau (1912 – 1994), the artist behind this iconic image. In the first retrospective on Doisneau since 1995, the city pays homage to the photographer who dedicated his career to the city’s forgotten rues, in search of those sublime moments that can only be found in the drudgery of daily habit.
The exposition, comprised of photographs taken over a nearly 60-year span, is designed without any chronological restraints in an effort to mimic the sort of meandering promenade through the city that Doisneau himself would once have taken. Paris-philes will recognize landmarks from all corners of the city, from the Pont de Crimee and Montrouge to Les Halles and the Tuileries. Though his work today is seen as a sort of documentary of Paris, particularly the period from 1940 to 1960, Doisneau never strove to be any sort of cultural anthropologist. Photographs are never objective witnesses, he claimed. With time, they become charged with the evocative power of dried flowers that one finds pressed between the pages of a book.
Though Doisneau’s images, today, are some of the 20th century’s most recognized photographs, the collection also attempts to explore a lesser-known aspect of his work. Prompted by a number of expositions that marked his career, Doisneau began to conduct graphic research on his images (what Doisneau himself referred to as photographic do-it-yourself), a tendency that has been largely ignored until now. Here, in the montages Les Halles de Paris (1968), Le Pont des Arts (1978), and La Maison des Locataires (1965), one can see Doisneau’s movement from image-capturer to image-maker. These montages, which consist of elements reconstituted from Doisneau’s other photos, function as documentaries that emphasize a narrative rather than his usual, primarily aesthetic compositions.
Along with fellow Parisians Willy Ronis and Edouard Boubat, Doisneau was one of the main champions of the humanist aesthetic. Fired in 1939 from his work at Renault due to irregularity in his work (specifically, for long periods of absence when the photographer took to the city streets), Doisneau was free to wander the city as he wished, camera in hand, to capture the world of popular, day-to-day Paris. The images that resulted bear the marks of Doisneau’s humanist gaze: Free of nostalgia, pathos, or ridicule, each image introduces its subject with lightness and smiling regard on the circumstances of daily life. Each image, from the couple walzing in the last of the evening’s darkness to the young baguette-wielding Parisians trotting down the cobblestones, invites us to construct the story around each image, drawing us into a Paris that is a world unto itself, leaving us with a gentle smile, witnesses to the magic of the city.
Doisneau: Paris in Liberty, through February 17th, 2007.
Salle Saint Jean of the Hotel de Ville, 5 Rue Lobau
Everyday from 10 am to 7 pm. Closed Sundays.