Side glance

Regard de coté (1948)   Robert Doisneau

This image is from one of the great masters of French photography in the twentieth century. ROBERT DOISNEAU was an urban photographer who used the Parisian streets as his best studio. Most of his works are about scenes and characters from the street: children, concierges, artists, shop keepers, waiters and such like. Generally they are ingenious pictures full of tenderness and sympathy for the characters they present. He has been occasionally accused of a certain lack of spontaneity in so far as one often has the feeling that the situations are not fully improvised and that they have been carefully planned; that the characters have been instructed in their roles. Therefore they don’t capture the famous “unique moment” because the shot could have been repeated over and over until the photographer gets “the shot”. In this respect the story of his photograph named “The kiss” where a couple are kissing passionately in front of the Paris city hall is well known. Years later the protagonists explained how they had posed for the photograph. This criticism is reasonable up to a certain point if we follow the principle that a photograph which is presented as having an intrinsic natural appearance should have been taken without any artifice. But perhaps we have to look at the question in a less strict way. And assume that, as I was explaining before, the Doisneau studio, a space where we usually accept the preparation and manipulation of the object, is the street itself.

The photographer has placed his characters there and he recreates the stories that most suit him without any concern. It’s curious to realise that in this photograph our natural way of looking is inverted; instead of staring at the articles inside the shop window, as we usually do, here we use it to look at what is outside. And we do it hidden, without being noticed by the characters. That’s to say like real “voyeurs”. Was the couple aware that Doisneau’s eye was spying on them at that moment. It doesn’t seem so or in any case the acting is excellent; on the other hand the image, cut by the book picture in the foreground and the presence of some young men on the other side of the street acting in a very spontaneous way, seems to reinforce this opinion. But as I’ve already said this is not essential.

A middle class, middle aged couple, in their Sunday best and wearing very elegant hats, are walking through the streets of Paris. Perhaps the Faubourg Sant-Honoré? They are not in a hurry and they are wandering about. They stop in front of the window of an art gallery and pass comments on the picture we cannot see. Is it a landscape? Could it be a still life? Who cares? The husband is listening to his wife’s comments but is clearly interested in something else.

This is an example of a picture speaking louder that any word; our glance moves amused from left to right and from right to left in total complicity with the photographer and with the inner satisfaction of having caught Monsieur Dupont fascinated by the “derrière” of the choir girl.