Capturing a Generation

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Robert Doisneau: The Vogue Years (Flammarion) serves as a comprehensive biography of the brilliant career of Robert Doisneau, the French photographer known for using his Leica on the streets of Paris. He had an eye that no one could overlook, which was apparent even when he was just beginning his career. Soon, Doisneau was granted a contract after meeting Michel de Brunhoff, the former editor of Vogue Paris. Brunhoff knew that Doisneau’s talent could not be ignored.

In the book, Doisneau’s career at Vogue is broken down into three parts. The first covers the cultural life of Paris where he photographed the artists, writers, and creators who were the most talked about people at the time. The second shows his photography of fashion models. And the third highlights his documentation of society life, which was his most beloved job.

Robert Doisneau: The Vogue Years includes pictures from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, but has a clear concentration on the era he is best known for—the famed Fifties. Doisneau’s children recalled that he had his “own unforgiving verdict on his brief stint as a fashion photographer.” Though the years he spent photographing models were short, his work was concentrated. Vogue never asked Doisneau for the occasional portrait; the fashion bible wanted stories that were up to ten pages long, with an incredible number of photographs on each spread. His work appeared in every edition from Paris to London to New York. Doisneau—who felt stifled by fashion photography—incorporated natural elements such as rain, snow, smoke bombs, shooting stars, and Bengal light to conceal his indifference to the subject. He believed these unconventional props made the shoots less stiff.

The great love of Doisneau’s life, really, was photographing society. Many of the balls and weddings he captured were considered the events of the century. For those who were not invited, the lack of invitation was a sure sign that you had been cast out of the inner circle. Many who were dismissed never returned. This postwar period in France, however, offered plenty of chances to overindulge. Women wore expensive couture gowns and then threw them into the depths of their closet, never to be seen again. The parties of this period were often so magnificent that guests would cross the Atlantic to attend. By Doisneau’s own account, he believed the ball of the century was Monsieur Beistegui’s in Venice. Guests had traveled first by Boeing jet and then by gondola to reach the Palazzo Labia. Most of the attendees were completely immersed in silk, fur, and jewels. The opulence of the period was a way for the upper crust of society to try to forget the horrors of war by “spending money like water,” noted Doisneau’s journalist counterpart, Edmonde Charles-Roux.

In Doisneu’s photographs, the gradual shift in society is clear: with each passing year, the subjects shed the tragic past of the war as time goes on. In Doisneau’s own words, “the images that remain act like guard rails, preventing the memory from slipping.” No one was going to be able to forget the memory of the war, but plenty tried to drown it in Champagne.