Dealing with the law is difficult when working as a photographer. There can be millions of problems with a single image, and there are many cases in history where photographers have ended up in court over a single photograph. Obviously I’m not talking about paparazzi, I’m talking about something more complex, something that for one French artist in particular was a great adventure, which thankfully ended for the best.
We all know the shot “Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville” (The Kiss by the City Hall) that you can see below, but not many people know the man who created it: Robert Doisneau.
It is important to talk about him not only because of the legal case against him, but also because of the way in which his art has made its way into our hearts and continues to do so to this day, becoming – alas – increasingly overused.
Gifted with an eccentric and particularly analytical mind since childhood, Doisneau has always seen life as a set of incongruent moments that exist in their own extremely long-lived static space.
This thought can be seen in every picture he takes, and he firmly defines his photography not as being linked to real life, but as being linked to life ‘as we would like it to be’. His sole aim was to remove the viewer from the everyday world, leaving him in suspense to contemplate the moment for what it was, allowing free interpretation.
His photographs have an almost plastic aura, and his subjects are mostly depicted in unnatural poses, as if to accentuate the idea of detachment from ordinary reality. His World War II projects show us the devastation of conflict in a theatrical way, making those scraps of life that have fallen into the abyss almost fascinating.
His storytelling about childhood and playing in the street creates a contrasting effect, taking us back to a time when we felt happy and free.
His technique and modus operandi represent humanity, in all its facets, in many cases through the fakery he applies.
In fact, it is well known by now that many of his photographs were staged. The same baiser de l’hôtel de ville represents one of the most famous staged shots in the history of photography, and which, as I mentioned at the beginning, brought Robert Doisneau to court in front of a couple who believed they had been portrayed without permission.
A nonsensical story, but one that the French photographer treated with respect, not wanting to destroy the dreams of the couple who had sued him.
However, the event was so destabilising for Doisneau that it brought about a drastic change in his career and personal life. According to his daughter Annette, he found no peace until the end of his days, feeling constantly targeted.
The photographer had woken up in a world that no longer belonged to him, that he could no longer shape in an ideal way, he had discovered the crude reality and the greed of people who wanted to profit from his name and his work. Doisneau had become disillusioned with humanity, the only true subject of his art.
The years he had spent creating a dimension of strong personality and respect had gone up in smoke because of a lawsuit that dismantled a huge part of his work.
Fortunately for him, however, the situation ended in the best possible way and his merits are still widely recognised in the photographic scene, with his work being shown in the biggest international galleries.
His faith in humanity and his actions may have faded, but I am sure that somewhere, looking at his photos, we can still find it and bring it back.