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About a kiss and a bullet (authenticity & social relations)

February 26, 2008

the kiss


How does it feel to know that one of the most romantic images ever made was staged? The famous ‘Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville’ by Robert Doisneau, captured in Paris in 1950, was no other but a manufactured image. Alas, this was revealed by its creator himself in a court trial in the 1990s when, in mid of controversy, Françoise Bornet, a former actress and the woman who was featured with her boyfriend in the photo, sued Doisneau for $18,000 and a share of the royalty in the image.

Her case was dismissed. Doisneau died the next year in 1994. But in the end, few years later, Ms. Bornet sold her original print of the photograph for over $200,000 at an auction (BBC News 25/4/2005) while the rights still remain with Doisneau’s agency.

So does it still feel an iconic image to you, a quintessential Parisian image of passion, a symbol of romantic spontaneity and  desire?

Arguably, what does it all matter? Iconic images have the capacity to capture attention and provide the visual space for the collective investment of our imagination and emotion, in such way that someone could say that it’s not really that important, anymore, whether these were made up or not.


But, the issue of authenticity seems always pertinent and capable to motivate public discourse. For example, see the comments made in this article (N.Y.Times, 6 Aug 2007), which mainly deals with another famous kiss, though a bit different one, being a ‘public’ rather than a ‘private-moment-in-public’ kiss: Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, during the celebration to mark the end of World War II (left).

So, why such a fuss about authenticity? It seems that we should not forget the general idea surrounding photography, that it does shape our understanding of life and events, of the world in general. Or, at least, this is what we secretly hope for!

But the images enter into and work through a wider social discourse of constructed and intertwined myths and realities. And the photographs are supported by pre-existing, mediating assumptions of reality, which in turn they reproduce back in particular ways, often as evidence of facts!… For example, we may identify a mixture of myth and reality about Paris, which makes it appear, mostly, as a legendary city of eternal love and passion. Or, we may feel already quite predisposed towards the exuberant celebration and welcoming of the end of war as national and universal and self-evident. These are the background themes underpinning the exposition of any relevant photographs. But the point is, that the photos shown here, in turn, are working in such a way that supports such pre-given expectations and already constructed understandings. Against, of course, other, alternative, equally plausible or valid understandings. My personal experience says, to state such an alternative example, that Paris burns and haunts romantic hearts… Paris was also capable to shock me – as much as any other visitor I would imagine – with its contrasting, racialised and impoverished periphery, and even with that blatant commodification of every human (and romantic) sense in its core. 

The really ‘special’ photographs, the iconic images as those above, those with the highly pleasing aesthetic arrangement and a functionally complete content, (because we must realise that there have been thousands of photographic kisses in Paris, and there were a dozen and more -now forgotten- different soldiers’ kisses published in that Life issue which did not raise to the iconic level); these icons enter the public domain as fashion, or even, as part of social rituals, altogether in a symbolic function – being more than what they depict.

The New York kiss, which according to the art critic Michael Kimmelman (from the article cited above) “it combined all the right elements: the returning soldier, the woman who welcomed him back and Times Square, the crossroads that symbolised home”, and I would add a successful black versus white formal play of contrast, was apparently to be re-enacted in 2005.

the bullet


On 5 September 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, a bullet kills a man of the Republican forces fighting the fascist army.  The renowned photograph above, entitled ‘Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death’ (© Magnum) was taken by young Hungarian photographer Robert Capa (initially called Andre Friedmann). It was published next year, in the 12 July 1937 issue of Life, with the caption “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba” (italics added).

The photograph soon became an icon of war. Even more, the falling Republican soldier became an emblem of aspiration in the fight against fascism across the globe. But in 1975 when Phillip Knightley suggested in his influential book ‘The First Casualty’ that the photograph was fake, taken during pre-staged manoeuvres especially arranged for the photographers, there was an immediate response from R. Whelan, Capa’s biographer, to restore the truth against the allegations.

On one side, Whelan wrote that “…the picture’s greatness ultimately lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy as a report on the death of a particular man.” However, on the other side, he also went all the way to research and identify the identity of this man (reported in The Genius of Photography by R. Badger, 2007). So now, we know him to have been Federico Borrell Garcia, aged twenty-four, who came from Alcoy in southern Spain.

The efforts to clarify the authenticity of this photograph shows, as R. Badger points out, “how much we want to believe in photography” and given the uncertainty of our times, it shows that we want to “be able to trust the most iconic of war images.”

2 things

There are two things attracting my thoughts in this discussion so far.

First, I have come to believe that iconic images, such as those above, by the same nature and context of their production and consumption, escape the need to be absolute and truthful fragments of an unmediated reality. Yet, we seem, as viewers and society, in almost contradictory way, to demand this. One reason for it might be, linked to photography’s and our society’s modernist roots, that their rising status as collective symbols demands that they reflect ‘truth’.

Of course someone could note here that we particularly ‘demand this truthfulness’ from the more really documentary genres of photography, such as war photography. It was Barthes (1977) who argued that a photograph contains both a denoted and a connoted message. The first referring to the literal reality and the second to the symbolic message which makes use of socio-cultural references. Can we have, though, an image – a documentary photograph that is -with simply and only a denoted message? Is there indeed such thing called a ‘denoted’ message?

Second, I have come to believe that iconic images, such as those above, manage to proficiently conceal almost all the social and economic relations around and behind them.

We can talk, among many other things, about the role of art institutions, the prevalence of male photographers, the context in which the political or cultural messages here were received and appreciated. In the case of Capa’s photograph, we can even analyse specific historical, technological and artistic processes associated with this photograph. For example, the covering of the Spanish Civil War was the first major conflict where 35mm cameras were used. Unlike the past, the cameras now were able to get close and capture fast-moving action. Capa emphasised these elements and even supplemented with a new aesthetic purpose: A fuzziness which actually was to sugest the fear or immediacy of war.

In the case of Doisneau’s kiss, (see article in NY Times 29/4/1993), the actors were paid 500 francs, there were so payments and contractual relationships reflecting the particular social and economic relations of the period. There were particular personal interests involved too; she maid a claim for part in the earnings of the photo, her ex-boyfriend did not (maybe he did not need the money or the attention).

There were other social and financial consequences to be legally negotiated regarding the claims or rights of people featured in thousands of photographs. Doisneau’s lawyer in the case referred to the “disastrous consequences” for photographic agencies if “obscure and anonymous people” were given the right to claim a share of the subsequent sales of photographs in which they appeared. The agencies’ economic interests might have been actually a major factor in influencing the final decision taken for this case, apart any moral complications.

Victor Burgin_Possesion_1974.jpg

Keeping in line with the initial photo of this article, these are the days of celebrating St. Valentine after all, and talking about hidden social and economic relations, I felt closing this article with an image/poster by Victor Burgin ‘What does Possession mean to you? (1974). 

posted by Christos Stavrou © 2008

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 25, 2009 11:44 pm

    How does it feel to know that one of the most romantic images ever made was staged? The famous ‘Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville’ by Robert Doisneau, captured in Paris in 1950, was no other but a manufactured image.

    To tell you the truth, I don’t care. Life is an act anyway.

    By the way: I put ‘ think in pictures’ on my blogroll.

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