I’d been looking forward to visiting the Grand Palais in Paris last November, to see Noir et Blanc, a black-and-white photography exhibition, but the virus, of course, put paid to that. The exhibition never even opened. Now it’s been relaunched online, and a fine job they’ve made of it. A €4 ticket allows you to ‘visit’ as many times as you like in a week, and tickets can be bought from now till mid-June. The website offers a 3D tour of the exhibition; all the prints can be seen, and an audio guide is available. There are more than 300 prints from the nineteenth century to the present day, taken by some 200 photographers from 30 different countries. The website software takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes it’s fairly straightforward. I’m particularly interested in photographers who specialised in Paris street life, such as Willi Ronis, Brassaï, and Robert Doisneau, and all of them are represented here.
Probably the most famous work in this field is Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).
It was taken in March 1950, on the corner of rue du Renard and rue de Rivoli, with the Hôtel de Ville clearly visible in the background. Published in Life magazine in June of that year, it was then more or less forgotten until 1986, when Doisneau gave a publisher permission to use it. It became hugely successful, appearing on posters, postcards, and T-shirts all over the world. For many, the image captures the very essence of romance, but its history also perhaps serves as a reminder that the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth.
Despite its sense of spontaneity, the image is in fact staged. Doisneau had gone out in the streets with some young actors he knew, following them around as they held hands, talked, and kissed. According to his daughter Annette, ‘His models weren’t models, in the sense that they didn’t pose. Doisneau was simply catching them flirting and kissing, in a very natural way.’
Following the success of the published image, many couples came forward claiming to be the ones in the picture. When one such couple, Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, visited Doisneau and his daughter in 1990, he chose not to tell them of their error. ‘He said nothing,’ said Annette. ‘I asked him why he hadn’t told them the truth. He said he didn’t want to shatter their dream.’
This kindness was to prove costly for Doisneau. In 1993, the Lavergnes took him to court, claiming that they were the couple in the picture and demanding $100,000 compensation for taking the picture without their knowledge.
The lawsuit forced Doisneau to admit that the shot wasn’t spontaneous, and the case was dismissed. However, his legal trouble didn’t end there. Françoise Bornet, the actress who appears in the photo with her then-boyfriend, Jacques Carteaud, came forward and sued for a portion of the poster sales, claiming that Carteaud was paid 500 francs by Doisneau and hadn’t shared the money with her. This case was also dismissed, though for Mme Bornet there was a happy ending of sorts. In 2005 she sold the original signed print that Doisneau had sent her a few days after taking the shot. A Swiss collector paid €155,000 for it at a Paris auction, more than ten times what it was expected to fetch.
At the time of the sale, Mme Bornet, by then in her seventies, revealed that her and Jacques’ relationship only lasted around nine months. Even though they are forever linked in the picture, they didn’t stay in touch. ‘I now think of it as a picture that should never really have existed,’ she said. ‘The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.’
A few black and white photos of my own. There are more at https://photos.app.goo.gl/9M9esBtjP7K8RXGV8
Things I’ve learnt this week:
The word ambisinistrous is the opposite of ambidextrous; it means ‘no good with either hand’.
Bovril was originally called ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’.
When customers visited the first supermarkets in the UK, they were afraid to pick up goods from the shelves in case they were told off.