Paris in Black and White: Photographs of Robert Doisneau

"Some days the mere fact of seeing feels like perfect happiness... You feel so rich you long to share your jubilation with others. The memory of such moments is my most precious possession. Maybe because there've been so few of them. A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there-- even if you put them end to end they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds snatched from eternity."  Robert Doisneau

The Kiss at Hotel de Ville , 1950, © atelier Robert Doisneau

The Kiss at Hotel de Ville, 1950, © atelier Robert Doisneau

For as long as I can remember, I have adored this photograph. It summed up everything that was romantic and poetic to my fanciful, adolescent soul. I don't recall where or how I came across it, only that I had a reproduction of it taped to my baby blue Laura Ashley wallpaper, somewhere between my giant A Room with a View poster and my first pair of pointe shoes. And just like Lucy Honeychurch being seized and kissed in a field near Florence, this anonymous Parisienne being kissed on a busy city sidewalk as the rest of the world shuffled around her represented all that my 14-year-old self could possibly want from the world of romance.

It shouldn't be a surprise that my very first boyfriend, whom I met on my very first day at New England Conservatory in Boston when I was barely 18, resembled this dashing smoocher not a little: rumpled jacket, artistically tousled hair, bohemian scarf and ever-present cigarette. I'm not sure I ever made the connection between that troubled but brilliant musician I spent the first three years of my adulthood with and the man in the by-then forgotten photograph I had left in my childhood bedroom, but seeing it again after so many years, hanging in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, it was almost laughably apparent.

The Ballad of Pierrette d'Orient , 1950, © atelier Robert Doisneau

The Ballad of Pierrette d'Orient, 1950, © atelier Robert Doisneau

Little did I know at 14 that this stolen kiss was only the tip of the iceberg in Doisneau's arsenal of Paris moments. Stumbling transfixed through the exhibition, I enthusiastically drank in the snapshots of humanity all around me: the wonder in a young girl's eyes as she looks at the Mona Lisa for the first time; a frumpy old wife's resentful glare at the show-girl whose arm is casually resting on her husband's knee; a scrubby boy's look of longing as he stares into a toy store window, the marvel in the eyes of a group of young men staring up at the Eiffel Tower.

Pont d'Iéna , 1945, © atelier Robert Doisneau

Pont d'Iéna, 1945, © atelier Robert Doisneau

And this, for me, is what makes Doisneau one of the greatest photographers of all time: his ability to capture an indescribable moment. Because, as he so eloquently put it in the quote that opens this post, it is these perfect, sublime moments that make life worth living.

As I write these words, a few lines from Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece Into the Woods ring out in my head (ironically introduced to me by that self-same first boyfriend):

"Oh, if life were made of moments!... even now and then a bad one--"

"But, if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one..."

Self-portrait with Rolleiflex , 1947, © atelier Robert Doisneau

Self-portrait with Rolleiflex, 1947, © atelier Robert Doisneau

If you live for unforgettable moments like Robert here and I do, don't miss this chance to see hundreds of his photographs, shot between 1934 and 1991 and exclusively in Paris, in this beautifully curated exhibit.

All images courtesy of Azienda Speciale Palaexpo