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by Margarita Nieto

Dans cet environnment banal qui était le mien il m’arrivait d’apercevoir des fragments de temps l’univers quotidien parassait liberé de la pesanteur. Montrer ces moments--l’pouvait occuper toute une vie (In these ordinary surroundings which were my own I happened to glimpse some fragments of time in which the everyday world appeared freed from its heaviness. To show such moments would take a whole lifetime.).

--Letter to Peter Hamilton
from Robert Doisneau,
January, 1992.

“The Last Waltz of July 14,
1949," photograph, 1949.

"Les Enfants de la Place
Hébert””, photograph, 1957.

"Le Regard Oblique,"
photograph, 1948.

"The Kiss at the Hotel de
Ville," photograph, 1950.

(Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica) In a review of Donald B. Hoffman’s book, Visual Intelligence. How We Create What We See (The New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1999), Ellen Ruppel Shell defines the cognitive scientist’s view of perception as an “. . .active. . .experience (which) constrains what we perceive but does not determine it: it provides the bricks and our mind lays them.” Vision for a cognitive scientist like Hoffman, “. . .like language, is not simply a reflex, a mindless response to light beams reflected from objects onto the retina, but an active process shaped by the mind and guided by a set of well defined rules.” Vision is used here in the philosophical context of a ‘phenomenal’ rather than a rational sense.

Robert Doisneau’s great gift was to bring about an awareness of the phenomenal to our ordinary rational sense through his photographer’s eye. In his intent to go beyond his “ordinary surroundings, (he) happened to glimpse some fragments of time where the everyday world appeared freed from its heaviness.” Those moments are embedded in these images, images that break the boundaries of banality and become signposts of our time.

Born to a working-class family in Gentilly, in the banlieu of Paris, his early surroundings--factories, shacks, slums, an array of workers, gypsies, beggars and day laborers--gave him a lasting awareness of the memory of place. A place, needless to say, far removed from that which Paris usually evoked. Those images were in his words, ‘inscribed’ within him, often imposing itself upon his vision, as part of a greater whole. He began studying lithography at the age of 13. In 1929, he took his drafting skills to Paris where he worked as a lettering artist for a graphic arts studio, the Atelier Ullman, and began studying painting and drawing. Moved by a desire to record the images of Paris and the banlieu, the water coursing through the gutters, the masses of humanity, he borrowed a camera and found himself. The camera was a perfect tool for his ‘insubordination,’ for his rebellion against the formalist rules which governed the art that he had been taught up to that time. Yet, if Doisneau’s early images are inscribed in him and consequently in his photographs because of these early experiences, his capacity to instill that sensibility into his work becomes a point of contact for countless viewers of them.

In this exhibition, the felicitous union of working with André Vigneau; the impact of photographers like Kertesz, Krull, Tabard and Man Ray and most particularly, Brassaï; friendships with Jacques and Pierre Prévert; and the new mastery over the usage of artificial light are all evident in Two Children Fetching Milk (1932). A consciousness of contrasts between light and shadow, emphasized as well by the two small figures dressed in dark coats, but wearing a white hat and a white scarf, combine to create a linear rhythm which underscores the context of the photograph, the milk dispensary, the idea of nourishment. Children embodying innocence, guile, and games, all veiled with a thin veneer of subtle irony, are a recurring metaphor in Doisneau’s work. Other examples in this show include The Indiscreet Pigeon, in which a white pigeon sits on top of the head of one unfortunate young boy among several lined up at the latrine. The same elements are to be seen in photographs of circus performers, trapeze artists and cabaret girls like Gyrating Wanda (1953) in which the dancer, illuminated by one spotlight, holds an audience of dark shadowy figures in her grasp; while through an open door, a group of passersby and a dog focus on a mysterious something beyond our view.

A modernist celebration of the poignant moment, his is a vision that perceives the worth of humanity despite its foibles and its weaknesses. From the solitary emptiness of the abandoned carousel in the rain, M. Barre’s Carousel (1955), to Doisneau’s unforgettable images of couples (among the most memorable here is The Last Dance of July 14, 1949) including the signature image, The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville (1950, originally one of a series of photos shot for Life Magazine), this is the sensibility that fills these images.

“The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form.” says Walter Benjamin, and this perhaps describes the basis of our fascination with Doisneau. A popular-populist language which cuts through hardened veneers of intellectualism and sophistication to touch us emotionally, his most effective images break down our elitist barriers. Commissioned by a commercial popular magazine, they become a touchstone for an era (the fifties), a place (Paris), and a moment (the fleeting and eternal youth of a century of viewers).