REVIEW: Robert Doisneau at Abbaye de Stavelot – Belgium

Just two months left to catch a great photography exhibition at a unique destination.

The Museum Abbaye de Stavelot, in the Liège region of Belgium is holding a comprehensive exhibit showing the works of French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912-1994). It opened in February, but you still have two months left before the show closes on September 30, 2012. The historic abbey is a lovely venue with a comfortable layout and holds high-caliber exhibits of international interest.

Doisneau was one of France’s favorite sons and is still one of its most well-known photographers. No small feat in a country that also claims Cartier-Bresson, and Atget.

Born 100 years ago just before WWI, Doisneau got his first Rolleiflex TLR camera around 1931, and started photographing the neighborhoods of Paris. During the Second World War, he joined the French Resistance and even documented the liberation of Paris. The Parisian streets were his home and he got to know their inhabitants like family. Their lives became his wellspring.

“The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”  – Robert Doisneau, “The Encyclopedia of Photography.” (1984)

He developed an uncanny ability to capture precious gems in the fleeting currents of everyday life. A glance, a kiss, a smirk . . . he stalked them. Usually from afar, but sometimes up close, his images transport us to that moment on the street, at the café, in the schoolroom, and he serves as the conduit for us to make an emotional connection with his subjects in another time and place.

L’information scolaire, Paris 1956 – Robert Doisneau
(image courtesy of Abbaye de Stavelot)

If Paris was a family, then Doisneau was that crazy uncle who always took out his camera when you all got together. And the 400,000-plus negatives he left behind read like a family photo album spanning the years.

One of several rooms dedicated to the Doisneau exhibition.
(photo by Lance Aram Rothstein)

This exhibition has many highlights. Most people have seen Doisneau’s iconic street photography and there’s plenty of that here to peruse. His photographs of children playing in the street are particularly poignant, because capturing such images of childhood innocence in today’s jaded society is becoming more and more difficult. A middle-aged man in a park, wearing rumpled clothes and carrying a big camera is looked at with suspicion these days rather than as a documentarian. And taking candid pictures of unfamiliar children can even be downright dangerous in some circumstances.

Les frères, rue du Docteur Lecène, Paris 1934 – Robert Doisneau
(image courtesy of Abbaye de Stavelot)

His portraiture is equally compelling and the many examples here allow the photographer to introduce us to some of the most famous names of the last century. The framed images of artists like Jean Tinguely, Picasso and Giacometti seem like windows into the minds of the artists themselves.

Jean Tinguely – Portrait of the Artist 1959 – Robert Doisneau
(photographed at the exhibition by Lance Aram Rothstein)

Some of his later,  lesser-known works give us a glimpse into the world of high society and feature the socialites of the era. But, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, he hasn’t treated these subjects any differently than the common concierges. This doesn’t mean he saw the rich with a disdainful eye; on the contrary, it just serves to highlight the fact that he had been treating the Parisian street-dwellers with dignity and respect from the start.

Doisneau’s proof sheets in the exhibition.
(photo by Lance Aram Rothstein)

The standout of the show though, is the unique opportunity to view Doisneau’s photographs of Belgium. An exclusive for the Abbey’s exhibition, most of these have never been published and are seldom seen.  We are even offered clues into the photographer’s process with access to some of his “proof sheets.” And for those gear-geeks among us, you can also see one of the Rolleiflex cameras and some of the cataloging boxes used by the photographer himself.

Display showing Doisneau’s camera.
(photo by Lance Aram Rothstein)

Another rare offering here are a small group of color photographs, including some outtakes from a 1960 Fortune Magazine assignment on Palm Springs. Clearly not his strongest work, it almost seems as if Doisneau has been snatched out of his black & white, European universe and plopped-down in Technicolorville on planet California. The vistas and pretty colors are pleasing, but it feels a bit like listening to Mick Jagger attempt to rap. Doisneau tries to do his usual thing, but it results in a different animal all-together. Though, like an animal oddity, these curiosities do draw the eye and spark intrigue.

Display of Doisneau’s Palm Springs pictures.
(photo by Lance Aram Rothstein)

This exhibit displays a diverse selection of photographs from a man whose creative eye has helped form our collective vision of the world we live in. Doisneau pictured life as a series of tableaux, and there is some controversy surrounding the revelation that he actually had a hand in “staging” some of these tableaux, such as his most famous image, Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville.  This may detract from the romance in some people’s minds, but there’s plenty of romance in his pictures to go around, and nothing can diminish the impact these photographs have already had on the world.

Visitors appreciating Doisneau’s work.
(photo by Lance Aram Rothstein)

Doisneau lived to see the rise of digital cameras and the proliferation of mass imagery. Today, we are bombarded with digitized photographs from every angle, 24/7. It’s nearly impossible to make a photograph that will actually grab anyone’s attention, yet editors and designers continue shoveling them out with apparent disregard. Doisneau commented regarding some of the people proliferating these images, saying they are “unaware of the hidden power of photographs.” Yet, even today, the power of Doisneau’s photographs cannot be hidden.

July 2012 ~ Lance Aram Rothstein

IF YOU GO: This is an unsolicited review, but here are some links and other info for those interested:

Link to their official site.

Located about 45 minutes (driving) south of Liège, the village of Stavelot is surrounded by scenic landscapes and protected nature preserves. The museum at Abbaye de Stavelot is a charming venue, built near the foundation remains of an 11th century abbey and actually houses four separate museums. In addition to their impressive temporary exhibits (see their previous Warhol exhibition), they also offer  The Museum of the Principality of Stavelot-Malmédy,  the Guillaume Apollinaire Museum and the Spa-Francorchamps Racetrack Museum.

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About lance aram rothstein

Photographer • Artist • Journalist • Archivist • Vandal View all posts by lance aram rothstein

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