Inspired by the great love of music of Robert Doisneau (1912-94), one of France‘s beloved humanist photographers, the Cité de la Musique is holding an exhibition of his photos on the theme. A child of the Paris suburbs (Gentilly, to be precise), Doisneau liked to wander alone through places “where there is nothing to see,” as he put it, in the suburbs or along the Canal Saint Martin, then an industrial backwater, accompanied by such distinguished companions as the poet Jacques Prévert, the subject of a series of photos shown here.
A sharp eye sees plenty of things, however, and Doisneau saw them and captured them in his Rolleiflex. We all know his famous image of a couple kissing at the Hôtel de la Ville, but here we discover another world of musicians playing in the streets and cafés, among them the singer Madame Lulu, accompanied by a pretty and haughty accordionist, Pierrette d’Orient (such deliciously old-fashioned names!). Doisneau became a fan and sought out their street gigs – snapping images of them along the way, of course.
As a staff photographer for Vogue magazine from 1949 to’51 and later as a freelancer for many other publications, Doisneau got to photograph more famous musicians. His image of singer Juliette Gréco (pictured at top of this page), was taken when she was only 21. The real subject of the photo, however, was the dog she is holding, Bidet, who was then starring in a play in Montparnasse with Gérard Philippe. Today, Bidet is forgotten, but Gréco is not, and the image is even more iconic because of the belltower of the Saint Germain des Prés Church in the background, marking its location as the quarter Greco was so closely identified with.
As the years went on, Doisneau kept up with the times. The show ends with his wonderful pictures of the great French rock group Les Rita Mitsouko and other musicians popular in the 1980s.
In between is a long series of smile-inducing images taken of and in complicity with his buddy, the cellist Maurice Baquet, who is always sporting a mischievous smile. In one, we see him playing his instrument naked in an apartment for a group of music lovers; in another, he is inside a Métro car and his cello outside of it, with his desperately reaching arm slammed in the closing door. You can just imagine how much fun this droll duo had dreaming up and staging these scenarios.
Some of Doisneau’s favorite music is played at stations around the exhibition, and the soundtrack for the show is provided by the French-American group Moriarty, one of whose members, Stephan Zimmerli, made the handsome drawings inspired by Doisneau’s photos.
Twenty more Doisneau photos have been hung in the Cité de la Musique Museum upstairs, a good excuse to explore its fabulous collection of historical instruments.
A map spotlights the places where many of Doisneau’s photos were taken near the Cité de la Musique. Visitors who take a walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Bassin de la Villette after the show will see that not much has changed since then. Madame Lulu and Pierrette are long gone, but there is still plenty to see for those who have the eye.