In Association with

Masters of Photography
Robert Doisneau

Text from Doisneau's book Three Seconds of Eternity

I'm not a collector at heart. I'm never tormented by the longing to possess things. I'm quite happy with my pictures. I've been cohabiting with them for years now and we know each other inside out, so I feel I'm entitled to say that pictures have a life and a character of their own. Maybe they're like plants they won't really flourish unless you talk to them.

I haven't gone that far - not yet anyway. Lots of them behave like good little girls and give me a nice smile whenever I walk past, but others are real bitches and never miss any opportunity to ruin my life. I handle them with kid gloves.

Let's keep our voices down. In the loggia, above the table where I'm writing, are three fat files. They've got fatter and fatter over the years and it may well be that one day, if I add just one more photo, if one of my naughty lodgers adds her weight to the load, the beams will collapse with a loud crash. But let's dismiss all thought of such an unhappy ending. On a more prosaic note I'm always finding myself hunting feverishly through the files with someone waiting on the other end of the phone. "Just hang on a moment!" I say, rather proud of my efficient filing system.

But as I'm riffling through, one picture stops me in my tracks. It's just as if I'd Rot tangled up in a bramble bush and I completely lose the thread of what I'm looking for. By the time I've extricated myself the person on the other end has hung up, in a fury no doubt. They're a funny lot; they expect me to be constantly at their beck and call and don't realize that over the years some pictures take on a sort of hypnotic power, whereas others turn into aging coquettes, so dreadfully old-fashioned you feel embarrassed at meeting them again.

"However could I have taken that?" you say to yourself. And yet I was reasonably pleased with myself at the time, and in fact it is quite clever, rather neatly done, really very ingenious. Yes, but since then other younger and more obviously clever photos have come on the scene, and their short-lived triumph banished the other pictures to the attic, since they too were only valid because of a series of illusory trick effects. I'll make do with this explanation - no point in wasting any more time on mediocrity - but I can't explain away quite so casually the fact that my photo companions seem to have found a recipe for the elixir of life.

In fact there isn't any recipe - that would be too easy - but all these images that are growing old so gracefully were taken instinctively. I put all my trust in intuition, which contributes so much more than rational thought. This is a commendable approach, because you need courage to be stupid - it's so rare these days when there are so many intelligent people all over the place who've stopped looking because they're so knowledgeable. Yet that little extra something supplied by the model is precisely a "look," like a legacy handed down to you from the distant past. It shoots straight along the optical axis and bores right through the photographer, the celluloid, the paper, and the viewer, like a laser beam scorching everything in its path, including, and a very good thing too, your critical faculties.

Yes, I know, you're supposed to tell your sitter not to look at the camera. It's an order, because the huntsman mustn't be suspected of being in league with his prey.

And what a superb huntsman he is, with a feather jauntily stuck in his hat - but his head is quite empty. Making people look away means that the picture loses most of its mysterious power. The way I see it, you mustn't be afraid of coming up with things for which there's no explanation, like the village idiot coming back with some unknown bird in his cap.

"How odd," I said, "how very strange." But I've stopped joking about that sort of thing ever since I met Pascal Fortuny. He lived in a modest little house in Montmorency. The furnishings inside showed no signs, to put it mildly, of idle frills. I took the portrait of a very elderly bearded gentleman, almost blind and wrapped in a dressing gown, with the beret worn by the mountain light infantry regiments perched on his head.

His attitude was kindly but aloof, and not a word was said - we didn't have much to say to each other of course. When I went to say goodbye he suddenly became affectionate and took my hand in his, which were long and wizened. I remember he had a ring with a huge stone - and then a sudden blank. I felt literally worn out, bled white, drained, incapable of driving my car.

Is there anyone in the house who can tell me in words of one syllable what happened that day? No, please ask those gentlemen over there to sit down. I didn't ask for a couple of male nurses. A psychiatrist perhaps, or anyway someone who'll speak clearly and simply. It's probably much the same as in photography - words make a pleasant sound but they don't contribute anything. You'll feel less awkward if you keep quiet and just show your pictures.

Don't be led astray by my reference to the magic power of images and start getting your pins out. That's not what I mean at all. The magic I'm referring to has got nothing to do with The Great Mephisto (or The Little Mephisto for that matter). It can take a very pleasant form and pop up when you're least expecting it.

For instance it can appear in the shape of a letter. A new friend whom you'll never meet has seen a photograph of yours in his local paper out there in the back of beyond and felt an irresistible urge to write to you. A case like that must involve a phenomenon of harmonic vibration transmitted over long distances without all those coils of wire you normally need for this type of communication.

Then again I think I've seen magic on the ceiling of a truck driver's cab when I woke up in the early hours on the Nationale 10 road near Couhé-Veyrac to the welcoming smiles of a dozen Marilyn Monroe blondes.

You must just let yourself go, and soak up the enchantment so that it becomes a familiar atmosphere. Far less research has been put into this than into the hunt for new Mannerisms, in which you can so easily fritter away your youth. Leave all that to the oldsters - they've got so few pleasures left.

I once crossed over the Pont-Neuf with a so-called cultured man. Over to the west a sunbeam lit up the Seine in a magnificent blaze of light. "Oh, look!" Then he grunted: "Pure Marquet!" As soon as a chink appears and he catches a glimpse of something dazzlingly unexpected, what does he do? He plugs it with words. That's all it does to him. The data have been received inside his head and promptly filed away. No emotion, for heaven's sake - that would mess up his tidy system and he'd have to sort it all out again. And anyway a bridge really isn't the place to admire things, that's what museums are for (just as other people might say, when they see a pair of lovers kissing in the street, "That's what hotels are for!").

I let him set off toward the Institut de France, bowed down beneath the weight of his erudition. Fellows like him are dangerous, they're so sure of themselves. If you gave them half a chance they'd stuff you while you were still alive. They're the sort of people who rummage about in your innards, like forensic pathologists - and they've never helped anyone to stay alive.

Well, I've had my say. Every now and then you have to knock the odd idol off its perch, shoot down the odd sacred cow, then creep off on tiptoe, feeling much better and ready to start again.

Some days the mere fact of seeing feels like perfect happiness. You feel as if you're floating along. The cops stop the traffic to let you through and you feel so rich you long to share your jubilation with others - you've got more than enough for yourself after all. The memory of such moments is my most precious possession. Maybe because there've been so few of them.

A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there - even if you put them end to end they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds snatched from eternity.


Buying posters through this link
supports Masters of Photography

articles photographs resources Home FAQ Contact