Robert Doisneau’s Pictures of Women

Perhaps best known for his iconic Parisian image The Kiss by the Town Hall, Robert Doisneau left a photographic legacy filled with warm, humorous, and poetic black-and-white impressions of everyday life in the French capital. The Doisneau photographs in the permanent collection of ICP are largely focused on women. Women in fashion, women on the street, the beauty of women, the hardship of women, but most of all, working women. The collection includes over sixty photographs, a bulk of them covering World War II and its aftermath. Around the world, throughout history, women in the workforce have gone largely undocumented, and these Doisneau images therefore provide valuable insight into war and post-war Paris reality.

There are everyday wartime images like this one of a peaceful session at the hairdresser’s. It suggests that the days pass and that life, despite the occupation and its horrors, continues.

donisneau_robert_242_2003Robert Doisneau, [Hairdresser], ca. 1944 (242.2003)

Then there are the women facing the reality and brutality of the war. The women in this photo have a responsibility on their shoulders: to alleviate the suffering of women in their respective countries. Their expressions showcase this harsh reality. This photograph was taken in 1945 during the meeting of the Congress of the Union of French Women. Most likely it was shot at the founding congress of The Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) on November 26-30, 1945, where some 850 women from forty countries met.

doisneau_robert_1425_2005Robert Doisneau, [Mme Popova, chief of Soviet delegation; La Pasionaria, representing women of Republican Spain; Mlle Riabov, bombardier of Soviet night command fighters, Congress of Union of French Women], 1945 (1425.2005)

The difficult aftermath of the war was sometimes lost in the joy and celebration of liberation. There was no clearer example of the horrors of war than the survivors from Hitler’s concentration camps. In this tender yet confrontational portrait, Germain Pican’s arm speaks volumes.

doisneau_robert_1424_2005Robert Doisneau, [Germain Pican displaying number tattoo received at Auschwitz, Congress of Union of French Women], 1945 (1424.2005)

This photograph was taken in 1972, a year that in many ways proved to be the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. The four helicopters in formation over Aristide Maillol’s sculpture of the Three Graces at once demonstrates the vulnerability and the harshness of human kind. It is not stated in the photographic records if Doisneau really had the Vietnam War in mind shooting this image, but I for one, would like to think so.

doisneau_robert_169_1981Robert Doisneau, Les Helicopteres, 1972 (169.1981)

To end on a lighter note: Doisneau takes a keen interest in the photographer and the photograph. In the ICP collection there are a number of images of noted fashion photographer Louse Dahl-Wolfe working with Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow. In some, they are working with a model on fashion shoot sets in studios or on the street, and then there is this unique and intimate photo: three professional women working on reviewing contact sheets at the editor’s bedside. A rare glimpse into the Parisian magazine world of the 1950s. And one truly has to admire Doisneau’s ability to gain access!

doisneau_robert_1137_2005Robert Doisneau, [Photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe at bedside of Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow reviewing contact sheets of fashion shoots], 1953 (1137.2005)

Kirsti Svenning, ICP Summer Intern
Kirsti is the Communications Advisor at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo

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