Unveiling the musical sense of Doisneau’s imagination and œuvre is the aim of this unique exhibition, bringing together more than two hundred photographs.
« In my ideal photography school, there would be a bouquet teacher and a music teacher. We would not train violin virtuosos, but we would explain the role of music, which sheds light on past civilisations—a very necessary further education. »
Robert Doisneau was born outside Paris in 1912. Entering the École Estienne at age 15 to study engraving and lithography, he then began working as a label designer for the pharmaceutical industry. As a young assistant to André Vigneau, his exposure to artistic creation developed. After four years with the Renault advertising department, he achieved the coveted status of freelance photographer.
War brought his endeavours to a brutal halt, but in the euphoric years afterwards, success ensued. His œuvre grew as he obstinately kept up his walks through « areas where there is nothing to see », aiming to capture the fleeting moments, the tiny joys illuminated by rays of sun on city asphalt.
At his death in 1994, he left behind some 450,000 negatives depicting his era with a tender amusement that must not veil the depth of reflection, insolence in the face of power and authority, and irreducible spirit of independence in his work.
With a Rolleiflex strapped over his shoulder, Robert Doisneau spent years exploring the outskirts of Paris on foot. Music is everywhere in the shots he took during these wanderings, and is a key element of his humanist look. For Doisneau, the love of music often led to a love of people, as shown in the series he created with Jacques Prévert and in the large gallery of amused, poetic portraits magnifying his cellist friend Maurice Baquet, his « teacher of happiness » as he said, for more than fifty years.
« I don’t bring anyone along. Strolling around is a solitary vice. I would be far too ashamed to show my hesitations, my tracing back, and most of all, my unreasonable expectations. »
An ethnologist of daily life, director of his own little theatre, Robert Doisneau spent a great deal of time walking throughout the southern suburbs of Paris where, in the day, music was everywhere. From musicians to brass bands, he sought to show all that gave the streets their festivity.
« My ear has gone fallow for classical music, but song helps me. In the street, you whistle little tunes that give you courage. »
A reportage photographer and peerless technician, Robert Doisneau could do it all and was highly sought-after by press editors. He worked for Vogue magazine from 1949 to 1951, where he photographed all the star singers of the day. In line with the « picture story » approach that was developing in the American press, some of his reportages seemed almost like photo-novels.
While working for Pierre Betz, Editor-in-Chief of Le Point magazine, Robert Doisneau was sent out to do reportages on subjects that were foreign to him at the time, such as « The adventure of music in the twentieth century ». In 1961, he photographed the musicians Pierre Boulez, Pierre Schaeffer, Henri Dutilleux and André Jolivet. He liked to take pictures of artists in their daily work, like Maria Callas at rehearsal, or François Baschet and Jacques Lasry in their workspace.
« When our paths crossed, I had found my teacher of happiness. »
The collaboration between the brilliant cellist and skier Maurice Baquet and Robert Doisneau opened up a new sphere of playfulness, freedom and creativity for the photographer. When they met just after the war, they immediately began working together on a book, published in 1981 under the title Ballade pour Violoncelle et Chambre Noire. In addition to all the drollery and laughter that Doisneau’s photographs exude, the book shows all the magic of his work: montage, trick photography, photomontage, collage, warping and fractioning, etc.
« I am putting together a reportage on Saint-Germain-des-Prés —the basement nightclubs, the crowd one finds there, and the artists—I mean, the absolute cutting edge of Western society. This new Montparnasse is very important for me who believes in archives ageing well. »
Robert Doisneau used to walk around Paris’ Saint Germain, which he called « the new Montparnasse ». He spent nights following and photographying jazzmen who came to play in the basement nightclubs, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Mezz Mezzrow, Bill Coleman, Claude Luter, etc.
« When the ageing delinquent that I am sees these serious people, these conservators and other librarians, making such a fuss over photos gleaned in illicit conditions, I feel a delightful jubilation well up in me. »
In the 1980s, Robert Doisneau was renowned and celebrated. He continued his wanderings throughout Paris and took pleasure in photographing a whole new generation of singers - whether for album covers or reportages for magazines like Actuel. The Rita Mitsouko, The Négresses Vertes or Renaud count among them.
extension of the exhibition in the permanent collection
The exhibition continues in the permanent collection at the Musée de la musique, in an unorthodox showing, with photos interspersed throughout the visit.
Commissioner, soundtrack and scenography
The little daughter of the photographer, Clémentine Deroudille, who has also created the Brassens and Barbara exhibitions, curated this joyful photographic promenade. The musical soundtrack is by Moriarty, whose Stephan Zimmerli—musician and graphic designer—created the set design.