Like many people, I fell in love with the iconic black and white photograph ‘Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville’ by Robert Doisneau when it was released as a print in the mid 1980’s. In case you are the one person in the world who it has passed by, it depicts a man and a woman kissing outside a café in Paris. Two lovers meeting outside a hotel, a kiss before they disappear surreptitiously up to their room with an afternoon of illicit love before them. How clever of Robert Doisneau to have spotted that moment and how fortunate he was to have had his camera ready at just that instant. It simply wouldn’t have worked in colour. The black and white image is as evocative of Paris in that period as anything that I have ever seen; but it is not just about the couple. There is a man in wire rimmed spectacles just behind them, dressed in a jacket over a shirt sweater and tie. The black beret perched on his head is almost a pastiche of the period. A woman in a trench coat is oblivious to the drama that is about to unfold and the people in the café itself are just focused on their drinks.
But of course, I and thousands of others were being set up like marks in a con game.
A number of years later I was visiting Vannes in Brittany for the Bastille Day celebrations when I stumbled across an exhibition of photographs by Robert Doisneau. I can’t say that they were well displayed, the exhibition place being a glass cube on the quayside which allowed the light to reflect from the glass covering the images. They were oddly positioned as well meaning that I ended up either stooping or standing on my toes to see them clearly. The description of the exhibition was revealing though. First of all, my French was now good enough to recognise that l’hôtel de ville was in fact the town hall and not a hotel at all. I accept that this was not the photographer’s fault but mine, but reading on I learned that in fact the whole scene had been set up. The couple were actually local students who had been paid to pose for the photograph although this was just the start of the drama. A bit of research later and a story that couldn’t have been invented started to unfold. In the first instance, nearly half a million copies of the photograph had been sold around the world making it the most popular poster print of all time. Then in 1992, a couple emerged claiming to be the couple in the photograph and demanding a share of the proceeds for ‘violation of their private life.’ They took it to court and at the trial, another woman emerged with proof that she was in fact one of the ‘lovers’. She had split up with her partner some time before but she had in her possession, a signed, numbered print given to them by Doisneau just after the photo shoot. She in turn now demanded additional remuneration. Oddly, her ex lover had declined the chance to become involved in the charade refusing to transform this ‘history of photography into a history of money’. In the end, as Shakespeare wrote, ‘All’s well that ends well’ and the claims were all dismissed out of hand.
So why am I retelling this tale now? Well, I have just seen that an exhibition of Doisneau’s work is to be shown in Quimper, a nearby town, in two weeks time. I am older and more cynical now but once again, I am prepared to let the magic of a monochromatic Paris weave it’s magic over me.