Robert Doisneau, The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville taken in 1950.

Robert Doisneau (1912-1994) is one of the most famous French photographers. His photographs were of common people, in common situations, often in the streets of Paris. Kiss by the Hotel de Ville is arguably one of his most famous photographs.

The work I am writing about is a black and white photograph of a scene on a Parisian boulevard taken in 1950. The focus of the image is on a man and woman embraced in a kiss slightly left of center. The photograph appears to have been taken from the inside of a Parisian cafe overlooking round tables, and facing outward toward the boulevard, all in the same direction. A man’s back is in the foreground on the left edge of the frame. He appears to be sitting inside the café in front of Doisneau. The lamppost on the left edge extending out of the top of the frame has curved ornate detail. The building structures in the background consist of uniform detail and rectangular shapes. There are other men and women in the image who appear to be walking past the couple in the kiss. A portion of two cars can be seen in the middle ground.

Doisneau's selection of elements constructs a believable scene shot randomly on a chilly day in Paris. The angle from which the image was taken and how it is composed and framed enhances artist’s intention of “capturing a moment in Parisian life.” However, I believe the photograph was completely contrived. The elements that construct this image were intentionally chosen to create a conceptually organic, truthful and believable image. The elements fit together so seamlessly because of the attention to detail of all figures within the planned composition.

The signs and symbols of this image represent a couple’s passionate and romantic private moment in the midst of a lively Parisian boulevard, which many can easily imagine. Doisneau is both clever and successful in his composition because he convinces the audience of his intention, yet achieves so by doing the very opposite: Doisneau clearly portrays an instantaneous and random moment of romantic passion captured in what many would agree is the world’s most romantic city, a typical French convention.

But isn’t it ironic that the image appears to have been taken randomly from the inside of a Parisian café, when it actually was composed, planned, art directed and thought out? Because Doisneau uses a real surrounding and illustrates a real fantasy, the audience is able to identify and consequently believe this was a randomly captured moment. The audience believes the image is truthful because they want to think their ability to identify with the moment makes the photograph truthful.

The people and action surrounding the couple in the kiss and their lack of interest or attention as they pass this couple adds to the audience’s belief that this wasn’t planned. In fact, it adds to the audience’s ability to imagine that they are in the very moment of the photograph, watching from inside the café, through Doisneau’s lens.

This image illustrates the Organic Theory of Composition, which is comprised of structural composition (shapes and volumes) and detailed composition (the actual elements in the image.) All of the elements in the image are intentionally organized to complete a system of signs that fit together. In this case, this system (or syntagmatic structure) is composed to reinforce French conventions as well the perceived randomness of the photographed moment.

The organic structural composition (shapes and volumes) of this image includes the following: the couple forms a triangle of the head of the man kissing the woman and his arm around her and his shoulder stems from the top. This triangle is extended toward the left to the man with the beret and then down to the man who's back we see sitting inside the cafe. The right of the triangle extends out of his shoulder, past the woman's head (who is behind the man in the kiss) and past the person behind her, finally extending around the car in the middle ground.

Vertical rectangular patterns are formed by the people in the image and the lamppost on the left extending out of the frame. The silhouette of the man walking out of the frame on the right with the hat is mimicked in the curves of the lamppost on the left.

The horizontal lines that run parallel in the image includes: all buildings in the background, the sidewalk, curb and street, and all of the shoulders of the men in the image. A circular shape forms a pattern with the tabletops in the cafe, the headlights and curves of the body style of the cars, the beret and glasses of the man on the left, and the hat of the man exiting the frame on the right.

The "L" shape of the open space between the cars is repeated both in the shape between the buildings (the sky) as well as the space between the lamppost and the head of the man in the kiss.

The organically detailed composition (the actual elements in the image) communicates passion, love and romance, answering the audience’s expectations and understanding (conventions) of Parisian lifestyle. This is successful because of the way the elements in the image are comprised if a system (or syntagmatic structure.)

The visual hierarchy of the couple embraced on a boulevard in Paris, surrounded by the busy street life exemplifies Doisneau’s use of high aesthetic quality and superior creative composition to further add to the believability of the image. The readable relationships of the system of this image are a suspended moment of passion, love, affection and romance of the two main figures embraced in a kiss. The blurred background suggests movement of the city life while the couple kissing are positioned leaning slightly back –— opposite of all other movement in the image, exaggerating the paused moment and enhancing the intended spontaneity the of shot. The other figures in the image pay no attention to the couple in this moment, and continue on their way. This uninterested response from the others makes them less visually interesting for the audience, and consequently adds more visual importance to the couple in the kiss. The angle from which this image was taken also adds drama to the suspended private moment in a public place. If the image had been taken from the right (straight ahead of the direction they are headed) the movement and perspective of the couple among the moving citizens would have been harder to read.

Visual diction involves creating images that are appropriate in certain circumstances, which help communicate the work (or image in this case) to the audience. Doisneau’s image is intended to provoke feelings of recognition, association and understanding by the audience. Adding to the passionate kiss in the moment, the setting of Paris further emphasizes the themes of passion and romance, conventions often associated with Paris and French life. This image wouldn’t have had the same thematic effect if it were taken in a place not normally associated with romance and passion. Doisneau used these conventions to intentionally reinforce them in this image to enhance its believability and truthfulness.

This image contains primary and secondary signifiers, or elements that point to another level of meaning. The denotation (or primary signage) and connotation (or secondary signage) of the composition illustrates and reinforces the French conventions and the spontaneity of the photograph. The primary and secondary signage includes: a man kissing a woman whom he holds in his left arm on a city street. He leans her back and moves in toward her to achieve this position. Her head is turned in toward his and her body position falls back slightly with her hand open, falling near her waist. Their bodies are positioned in opposition (or falling slightly back) of the direction they are heading, which enhances both importance and the effect of slow motion or paused moment. These signs suggest a suspended, private moment of passion amidst a fast moving public city scene of social interactivity, easily identifiable by the audience.

He holds a shopping bag in his right hand, suggesting this is a social outing and time of enjoyment together for the couple. Their hair is meticulously contrived and coiffed in a 1950 contemporary style of French fashion. The other figures in the image move past the couple, minding their own business, also emphasizing the paused moment of the couple’s kiss. The man to left of the couple wears a beret, further reinforcing the French setting and another French convention. All of the figures in the image wear tailored and well kept wool coats, scarves and/or hats, suggesting a cold, wet season. They are well dressed in a stylish, presentable way acceptable to social standards of a Parisian outing. This attention to detail, style and fashion are iconographic of Parisian city life and further illustrate the notion that this image was planned.

Large, square buildings in the background frame the scene. The amount of people on the street and the traffic suggest they are in a popular social area or shopping district of Paris. The moving cars in the middle ground are also stylistic symbols of affluence because they are contemporary models for 1950. These elements coupled with the city scene suggest a fast-paced socially affluent scene in French culture.

The believability of the image allows the audience to easily imagine what takes place after this moment; perhaps they continue to engage in a passionate kiss; or maybe they saunter along the boulevard in their elation. Perhaps they will continue to stroll in this manner along Champs d’Elyssey and eventually arrive at L’ Arc d’ Triomphe. Whatever one may imagine is likely to be a story that can be communicated and translated years beyond the moment this image was taken, adding to the success of the image.

Jen Tarara © 2002
for Critical Methods, John Brumfield, 11.20.02
Art Center College of Design