Down to the Factory

Photographer - Robert Doisneau

"I've never examined why I make photos. In truth it's a hopeless struggle against the idea that one will die. It's something I'm more prepared for, because one shouldn't think that every action is temporary and momentary. I try obstinately to stop this time that is passing." Robert Doisneau.

Robert Doisneau was born in 1912 and grew up in the 'banlieue', the urban fringe around Paris. This area was a kind of wasteland, the 'zone', home to tramps, gypsies, rag pickers and other marginal characters. It was also a great area in which children could explore and play, a wilderness to fire the imagination. In contrast, his family home was stiflingly polite and respectable, and he hated it. He entered a craft school at 13 that gave him limited art training. His uncle, a Mayor, gave him his first commission at 17, taking pictures for the council bulletin. He borrowed a camera to work with, but when he handed in the pictures, asked for - and was given - exactly the price of a new Rolleiflex camera. It was on this type of camera, a twin lens reflex taking 12 2 1/4 " square pictures on a roll of 120 film, that Doisneau was to take own pictures almost exclusively for over 20 years. Doisneau worked for Renault as an industrial photographer until he was fired at age 27. He was called into the French army that same year and worked for the “Resistance” until the end of the war. In 1949, he signed with Vogue and worked there for three years until he was 40. After that, he was a freelance photographer until he died in 1994 in Paris at age 82. He was a shy and humble man who lived simply and took photos mostly of common people in the streets. Click here to see more of his work. He is one of the most famous French photographers.

Elizabeth and Ida Tengle, Hale County Alabama (Summer, 1936)
Photographer - Walker Evans, 1903-1975

I will tell you, in all detail, of
where I am; of what I perceive.
Everything that is is holy.
--James Agee

Years ago I came upon the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans and was amazed at the concept they had managed. In 1936, they were both young men (Agee 27, Evans 33) when they were sent by Fortune magazine into rural Alabama to document the lives of tenant farmers. FDR had just been elected for a second term and his New Deal was looking at the poverty in the nation's farming population, resulting in the forming of the Farm Security Administration. Evans and Agee concentrated their attention on three sharecropper families - Agee wrote exquisite prose descriptions of their lives and their environment while Evans recorded them in black and white reality. It would be another five years before it was published, as Fortune magazine backed out. In 1965 Evans left Fortune , where he had been a staff photographer for twenty years, to become a professor of photography and graphic design at Yale University. He remained in the position until 1974, a year before his death. Here are more of his photos from the book and here is a quote from Agee:

It is late in a summer night, in a room of a house set deep and solitary in the country; all in this house save myself are sleeping; I sit at a table, facing a partition wall; and I am looking at a lighted coal-oil lamp which stands on the table close to the wall, and just beyond the sleeping of my relaxed left hand; with my right hand I am from time to time writing, with a soft pencil, into a school-child's composition book; but just now, I am entirely focused on the lamp, and light.

Flowers and Fruit (1860)

Roger Fenton (1819-1869)

Albumen print from wet collodion negative, 350x430mm

Roger Fenton only worked as a photographer for 11-12 years, but during that time he became the most famous photographer in Britain. Photography had really only been invented just 10 years before that. He was the first official photographer to the British Museum and one of the founders of the Royal Photographic Society. He was the son of a rich Parliament member, who earned a Master of Arts degree and took up painting first, studying in France. When he was 23, he returned to England to study law but kept painting. He married happily and was really kind of dabbling in various interests in the way wealthy people do, when he discovered his major talent was photography. His first commission was to travel to Russia to photograph architecture, and then he was sent to cover the Crimean War in his early 30's, becoming the first war photographer to cover a war from beginning to end. When he returned to London he did a series posing men and women in Orientalist costumes. He followed this with a series of still lifes that achieved technical perfection (like the one shown here). Photography had been considered a worthless hobby until then, and he began to attempt to elevate it to an art form. Finally, when he was 43 years old, saddened by the commercial turn photography was then taking, he suddenly retired from photography, auctioned off all his equipment and worked the rest of his life as a lawyer, never taking another photograph. He died at age 50. (Read more about him here.)