Paris has many poets, but she loves none of them more than photographer Robert Doisneau. The monochromatic images he snatched from her streets have helped create the city’s singular mythology. They conjure up a geography of busy cafés, working folk, urban urchins—and all their dreams. Yet they are themselves dreams of how photos in Paris should look.
“My photography,” Doisneau said, “is not the world as it is but the world as I wish it would be.” To this end, the consummate scenarist roamed, watched and waited, stalking a mid-20th-century vision of his own. For Doisneau, it was political: antiwar and favoring workers over bourgeois subjects, he was a true believer in populist pictures. Now revered as a pioneer of street photography, Doisneau is also known for carefully choreographing shots once thought “spontaneous.” Foremost among the latter is his Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville.
Doisneau worked for picture magazines and image agencies, filling their requirements for the whole spectrum of photos in Paris. He shot portraits of celebrities and fashion for Vogue—but always saw street photography as his true métier.
If his style was fueled by the city’s daily bustle, it was trained by work in advertising and photo narrative. (Doisneau shot for Renault and, like many professional colleagues, he supplied snaps with story lines to magazines such as Life.) His work is less photojournalism than a kind of tale-by-photo: individual peeks into Parisian lives.
In the wonderful show “Doisneau Paris Les Halles,” the mairie takes advantage of this by marrying Doisneau’s legend to that of the Les Halles market. It was a mythical location where he loved to shoot. Demolished in the early ’70s, Les Halles once provided the whole city with its flowers, meats and produce. (Today, this is done in the suburbs, at Rungis.) Author Emile Zola famously dubbed Les Halles “the belly of Paris” and numerous later authors were drawn to depicting it. Filled with color and action, it was a raucous enterprise whose working “day” started at midnight and finished at noon. As with London’s Covent Garden, which shared its function and fate, the final destruction of Les Halles unleashed local fury. Even today, the loss of its iron-and-glass Baltard pavilions seems tragic.
There is more than a pinch of modern politics in the show. Les Halles, which kept its name, became a transport hub and faceless shopping complex. Never lovely, the buildings decayed over the decades. Then, last year, a fresh demolition took place. Supposedly, it will result in a modernist eco-cityscape, sheltering underneath a giant glass canopy. However, these plans have been controversial, too. This valentine to the vanished market—by an artist of the people—is meant to reassure Parisians about the mairie‘s views of Les Halles.
Doisneau’s two daughters cocurated the expo. One of them, Francine Déroudille, insists its aim is not nostalgia. “We’re not saying, ‘It was so much better before.’ Just ‘this is really how it was at the time.’ We see Les Halles as a part of the city’s intimate memory.”
For romance and drama, few photos in Paris can match these. They are beautiful works that burst with life and personality, from the esoteric (herb sellers and transvestites) to the stylish—the haut monde caught slumming the market by night. The “magical act,” as Doisneau liked to call photography, transports viewers into their vanished world.
Entrance to shows at the Hôtel de Ville is free. However, due to Doisneau’s popularity, you could stand in line for several hours. Your best bet: arrive before doors open at 10 a.m. and avoid Saturdays (the show is closed on Sundays).
Another Paris icon, cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, also has works on show for free at the Hôtel de Ville. Most Anglophones know Sempé’s illustrations, either from the Le petit Nicolas books or his covers for the New Yorker. This expo, “A Bit of Paris,” should have closed when Doisneau’s opened. But it was such a hit, the end was postponed until March 31.
Markets in the Movies
In Stanley Donen’s Charade, Audrey Hepburn meets Walter Matthau in the old Les Halles. Two movies that have scenes in Rungis are Danièle Thompson’s La Bûche and Paris by Cédric Klapisch.
Editor’s note: We have a wonderful selection of preferred tour guides to take you around Paris whether you are interested in art, culture or history. Paris Travel Club Members receive a special discount or un petit cadeau.