I like a bit of French humanist photography as much as the next man, and often for very simple reasons. But they’re not always simple pictures. Brassaï was an intellectual, a writer and a thinker as well as a snapper, whereas Robert Doisneau is thought of as an instinctual, reflex, photographer. He certainly had prodigious reflexes. A picture like this has to be rapidly seized. But that by no means implies that it need be slight. The elegant complexity of what is going on in this charming street scene still takes me by surprise. Never underestimate a great photographer.
The nominal subject of L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard (1951) is a musician. He is facing us, but his eyes are a dark bar across his face, a clear indication that he cannot see. As if that were not enough, he has a very visible white stick. Above his head, a No Entry sign looks for all the word like a blindfold on a child’s drawing of a face. A blinded smiley would look just like that. It acts as a graphic shorthand of the whole picture: a visual title. So we have three separate, very clear suggestions that this cute picture is not about street life or music but about blindness.
Let’s go on: the group on the left are all looking with concentrated attention at something, but we cannot see what. The lady on the right, too, is staring at something, but in her case it’s out of shot. Between them, a very obvious “frame” in the panelling of the shop front is empty. Where we might expect an advertisement or a trade-name, there is only the varnished grain of bare wood. So the frame is “blind”, too. Only one figure is caught looking with attention: the sturdily poised artist square on his feet, drawing. We can’t see his page: too far, and protected by the angle of his pad. We can guess what he’s at, though. He must be drawing the blind accordionist. And then it finally dawns: he is drawing the musician, certainly. But he’s drawing him in a scene just like the one we’re looking at. And the only person looking intently back out of that scene, into the picture that Doisneau has made, is you. It’s a cheerful enough scene. But the joke is on us, the viewers. We are the only ones in the whole equation who are not seeing anything of what all the others are looking at. We are the blind viewers of the Rue Mouffetard.
It’s still cute, full of lovely period details like the baggy trousers and the battered soft hat. But it isn’t just cute, by any means. It is a beautifully crafted essay on the business of looking. As such, it’s amazing.
Thank you for a very enlightening tour through this extraordinary, virtuoso image. Yes, many of Doisneau’s shots were set up…he had to make a living, but I don’t think this is. It may have been carefully previsualised since the accordionist may have occupied that place habitually. Doisneau certainly capitalised on the Franocophile sentiment of the period and the accordion is the classic Parisan sound. The motion of the woodgrain is a beautiful evocation of music, don’t you think? I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little work on it in printing to lighten its flame-like passage. The image is shot on square format I assume…I haven’t seen any contact sheet of this, have you? It would be interesting to know what was cropped and from which side. Imagine the thrill of making such a shot…I can imagine the shouts of joy in the darkroom!
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The artist might be taking a quick sketch of exactly the same scene: something happening behind our shoulders (traffic? a crowd just walking their way? indifference to the musician is certain), a blind musician – and the only person facing the artist is the photographer.
An amazing picture, yes! I forget sometimes that it’s pictures like this that drew me to photography in the first place. Thank you for a timely reminder.
After grappa: This is almost a romantic piece
Richard Schulman Instagram: @schulmanrichardphotographer Schulmanphotography.com Mynakedarchitecture.tumblr.com 1-917-862-1398
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I thought Doisneau fotos were set , or was it only the kiss.
Nice article on a photographer that I must admit I’ve not paid much attention to in the past. Heading to Paris in a couple of weeks so might try and seek out some relevant Doisneau work. Any one have suggestions re good galleries for Doisneau or other docu/Street? Only have Jeu de Paume for Susan Meiselas at the mo. Thanks!
Susan Meiselas was/is a terrific photographer…but Doisneau and Brassaï had magic in their eyes
Sometimes a bit cheeky. But always an aha moment
Don’t know who shows his work in Paris…sorry