Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville, 1950 | 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.

In the spring 1950, Doisneau’s agent had pitched a series on ‘the lovers of Paris’ to American publications and Life magazine had commissioned it. Doisneau called himself a realist — “a brutal thief of images” — but he was cautious about street photography. Image rights were already protected by law and Doisneau preferred to use friends or young actors in his commissioned reportage in order to avoid legal issues.

Doisneau had seen the protagonists of his photo days earlier, near Cours Simon, a school at which they were studying acting. He asked them for a shoot for a fee of 500 francs, and one afternoon in March 1950, he followed them as they walked, held hands, talked, and kissed. They were not models in the sense that they weren’t posing for him.

The photo was published in Life, but was not instantly famous. It was not the largest photo in the essay and Doisneau himself didn’t think much of it. In 1986, a poster reprint was issued and it sold 410,000 copies — a world record then. Soon, controversy began with a different couple claiming that they were the protagonists of the photo and suing Doisneau for 500,000 francs for violation of their private life. Doisneau had to come clean that he had staged the photo and had to produce the actual couple in the photo — Francoise Bornet and Jacques Carteaud — to whom he had also given an original numbered and stamped photograph. Then Bornet filed a lawsuit and demanded 100,000 francs in additional remuneration, as well as a percentage of commercial profits. (The lovers have separated and Carteaud refused to join the litigation, refusing to “transform this photographic story into a story of money”).

Doisneau later came to hate the photo’s fame; as he resented his reputation as a romantic photographer that this photo brought.

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


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