Biographies: Robert Doisneau, (France, 1912-94)

Figure 1.--Doisneau took this fun photograph in Paris during 1934, taken in his earlier years as a photographer. Several interesting clothing details are available. French boys before World War II still commonly wore berets as well as heavy boot-like shoes. Two elegantly dressed boys, probably brothers, look in--one in a suit and the other wearing an overcoat. To the right a boy on a scooter wears his school smock, not bothering to change after school.

Robert Doisneau is one of France's most noted photographers. He is noted for the many playful and unsuposing images chronicling everyday French life. His prolific outbook over the course of several decades provides us a marvelous record of French life. His images don't seek to overcome the viewer. They are often modest in scope and playful. He is at his best with people. His images of French childhood are especially helpful for HBC. He was influenced by the work of Kertesz, Atget, and Cartier-Bresson who also provided wonderful images of childhood. He published ober 20 books providing realistic, but charming images of quiet, often personal moments in the lives of individuals. He wrote: "The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street."


Robert was born in Gentilly in the Val-de-Marne, France. We have not information on his childhood at this time or how he was dressed as a boy.


Robert studied engraving at the Ecole Estienne in Chantilly, but found his training antiquated and useless upon graduation. Engraving had been a major activity before the development of photo lithography, but was much in demand after the turn of the 20th century. With his rather antiquated training, he had great difficulty obtaining work as a lithographer.


Doisneau eas exposed to photography in the advertising department of a pharmaceutical firm. He embrrced this new-found interest in photography and largely taught himself. Outside of his job, he began to see photography as a medium for at first a hobby--recording every day life during his wanderings through the streets of Paris. He began photographing details of objects in 1930. He sold his first photo-story to the Excelsior newspaper in 1932. He was a camera assistant to the sculptor Andrei Vigneaux and did military service prior to taking a job as an industrial and advertising photographer for the Renault auto factory at Billancourt in 1934. He was fired in 1939 and was forced to try freelance advertising and postcard photography to earn his living. The post cards were a majot outlet for photgraphers at the time and France had Europe's largest industy. Post cards in the early 20th century served the purpose of modern greeting cards as well as vacation souveinrs, although this was changing in the 1930s. Doisneau was hired by the Rapho photo agency in 1939 and worked there for several months until the inset of World War II.

World War II

Doisneau was drafted in 1939. He was a member of the Resistance both as a soldier and as a photographer. While his training in engraving was not helpful in his attempts to get a job, it proved invluable to the Resistance. He used his engraving skills to forge passports and identification papers. He photographed the Occupation and Liberation of Paris. some of these images, especially of the liberation of Paris are photographic masterpices. His classic photographs capture the exileration and joy of liberation in Paris like no other photographer.

Post War Period

Some of Doisneau's most remembered photographs were taken in the post-war era. He returned to freelance work and sold photographs to Life and other important international magazines. He joined the Alliance photo agency for a short time and began working with Rapho again in 1946. Against his better judgement Doisneau did high-society and fashion photography for Paris Vogue from 1948 to 1951. During his assignments with Vogue, the photographer became acquainted with high-society circles, for which, however, he did not have as much sympathy as he did for the common people in the streets. All through this period, however, he took realistic photographs of daily life on the streets of Paris. These are the photographs we remember him for and many of his high-society photographs are virtually forgotten. Certainly the appeal to the French was his ability to capture the simple joys of everyday life--so much more meaningful after the dark days of NAZI occupation.

Film Stock

A French reader reports that after World War II the photographs taken by many Europeans were of poor quality. This was primarily because the film available was very poor quality. The devestation of the War had serious affected the photographic industry as well as most other industries. Doisneau's photographs, however, continued to be high quality. He probably has access to American film.


The photography of Robert Doisneau has enjoyed a revival in the last five years or so. Many of his portraits and photos of Paris from the end of World War II through the 1950's have been turned into calendars and postcards and have becomes icons of French life. Perhaps his most famous photograph is "Kiss in front of the Palace of City Hall." This photogrpah has been reproduced by the millions and is perhaps the most famous French photograph. It became a ymbol of young, boisterous love in Paris--of course the city most associated with love. The realism of Doisneau's photographs make a wonderful record of both style and lifestyle. In addition to his reportage photography, he has photographed many noted artists including Giacometti, Cocteau, Leger, Braque, and Picasso.

The Recipie

Doisneau writes of his photography, "In fact there isn't any recipe - that would be too easy - but all these images that are growing old so gracefully were taken instinctively. I put all my trust in intuition, which contributes so much more than rational thought. This is a commendable approach, because you need courage to be stupid - it's so rare these days when there are so many intelligent people all over the place who've stopped looking because they're so knowledgeable. Yet that little extra something supplied by the model is precisely a `look,' like a legacy handed down to you from the distant past. It shoots straight along the optical axis and bores right through the photographer, the celluloid, the paper, and the viewer, like a laser beam scorching everything in its path, including, and a very good thing too, your critical faculties."


Some of Doisneau's most appealing photographs are those of French childhood--perhaps the best ever taken. He took photographs on the street as well as homes and schools. Some were candid. Others were posed. As he photographed extensively from the 1930s-50s, his photographs record not only the texture of French, bbut developing fashion patterns before, during, and after World War II. The images provide a wonderful record of the clothes sworn by children during the period and thus is very useful to HBC.


Doisneau won the Prix Kodak in 1947. He was awarded the Prix Niepce in 1956 and acted as a consultant to Expo '67, Canada. A short film, "Le Paris de Robert Doisneau", was made in 1973. Doisneau has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Bibliotecque Nationale in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Witkin Gallery in New York City.

Later Years

Doisneau was in many ways a shy and unassuming man, rather like his photography. He lived in the Paris suburb of Montrouge. He died in 1994.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: October 16, 2001
Last updated: December 19, 2001