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Colin Randall wrote here on France, things Anglo-French and more......but has moved

January 29, 2007

The passing mystery of a famous kiss

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Look at this photograph, and let's discuss images in the media, I told French journalism students at one of the occasional lessons I give at a college near the Louvre.

Recaptured by: ginieland.

Of course Le Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville, also known - see my exchange with Richard of Orléans below - as The Kiss at City Hall or just The Kiss, is to do with art, not news photography.

But it seemed a good, familiar and topical place to start. Topical because my class had all been to the current exhibition of Robert Doisneau photos of Paris, staged appropriately enough in the City Hall.

So have 215,000 other people, I was told by City Hall today. Since entry is free, we can safely assume the total will top 250,000 before the doors close on February 17.

My students knew all about the kiss itself having been posed, though by a real-life courting couple. I suppose that stopped being a secret several years ago.

But what about the passers-by, I asked? Tell me especially what you think of the stern-faced man who walks past the embracing couple with other matters apparently on his mind.

All the students agreed he was French, almost stereotypically so with his beret. One thought his appearance, and the timing of Doisneau's picture (1950), evoked the Resistance.

Ah, I said, having hoped for just such a response, but he was Irish. An auctioneer and devout Roman Catholic named Jack Costello, passing through Paris on his first trip out of Ireland, a motorbike pilgrimage to Rome.

How, my students wanted to know, could I be so sure? I then told them of a Dubliner, Pat Cody, who had phoned out of the blue after an article of mine appeared in The Daily Telegraph about the female half of the kissing couple, Françoise Bornet, auctioning off her original print.

Pat explained that the passer-by was his father-in-law. It seemed convincing enough; I checked on the internet and there it was, not once but several times.

An academic from Lincoln University, an Italian website and so on. All talking about the Irishman's walk-on role. Pat mentioned that the Irish Times had also written it up (I have since seen that article, and heard of other references on radio and TV).

I did nothing much about this at the time, beyond passing it on to London colleagues in case they wanted the Irish correspondent to follow it up (they didn't) and, later, mentioning it in my blog.

That drew a response from a photography buff in America who was intrigued to have more light shed on his knowledge of this classic item of photography.

On leaving the Telegraph - my employment, coincidentally, legally ends today - I decided to resurrect the subject.

The current exhibition in Paris gave me the excuse, though The Kiss is actually displayed very discreetly as if considered one of Doisneau's lesser works.

I drove over to Grasse to meet one of Jack Costello's sons, John, who was visiting the south of France. He put me back in touch with his sister, Colette, Pat Cody's wife, whose number I no longer had. This is her, with proud dad Jack, on her wedding day 15 years after The Kiss.

And then I got the Kiss of Death from City Hall. They gave me numbers for Doisneau's two daughters, between them acting as commissaires for the exhibition. To say they were easy to contact would be an exaggeration, but one of them, Francine Deroudille, did tell me with absolute certainty that there was, after all, no Irish connection.

For Jack Costello, read Gérard Petit, a Montreal lawyer who, according to Francine, who had made contact with her father in 1989. The two men later met. Petit knew, and Doisneau confirmed, that he was that passer-by.

Early checks of newspaper clippings drew a blank. But thanks to Bill Taylor, I discovered that Petit's role was reported by a French-language Quebec newspaper. He had been alerted by a neighbour who was a firm fan of Doisneau's work and, in particular, this photograph.

Again with Bill's help, I was able to communciate by email with Carole Turbide, who now lives in what was Petit's home and who also knew a little of the story. She loved the thought that "perhaps a little of Doisneau's soul lives on in this flat".

Where the story had led was not quite where I had first expected, though my account of it was evidently given a very prominent show in yesterday's Irish editions of the Sunday Times, the first piece I have written for another newspaper - as opposed to websites such as The First Post - since leaving the DT.

I must admit that I rather liked the idea of an untravelled, unsophisticated Irishman caught by chance in such a striking (if contrived) portrayal of human emotion. He would, as Colette told me, had been mortified had he actually noticed them behaving like that in front of him.

So I am happy to report that Colette, and her brother John, prefer to hang on to the family history and insist that the man in the beret and specs was their dad.

Jack Costello himself never knew a thing about it. The Kiss did not become an international success until it was marketed as a poster after his death.

But neither Gérard Petit nor Robert Doisneau is any longer around to contradict his children's fond belief.

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This site has now moved to Salut!


At January 30, 2007 9:55 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Happy to have been of service, Colin.
Doisneau was a great one for staging photographs, which I think takes away a lot of their impact. I much prefer the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. There are, of course, those who believe some of his "decisive moments" were staged, but no proof of this. I believe a number of Doisneau's little tableaux are well-documented as setups. It diminishes his work. There again, the iconic American World War II shot of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima was a re-enactment a short while after the event, with due consideration paid to lighting and composition. The camera may not lie but the photographer can certainly bend the truth.

At January 31, 2007 9:11 AM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

'Of course Le Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville, better known as The Kiss at City Hall or just The Kiss'

'La Louvre better known as the Louvre'
'La Tour Eiffel better known as The Eiffel Tower'
'Les Champs Elysées better known as the Elyseen Fields'

Are no doubt for later posts.
Ah, one can see that the free lancer is looking to please his potential Anglo Saxon market.

At January 31, 2007 10:25 AM, Blogger Colin Randall said...

Richard is right. However I loaded it on Yahoo and Google, the French title - abbreviated or not - came up trumps. That surprised me, but I have amended the posting. I didn't try the same exercise with the Eiffel Tower vs La Tour Eiffel.

At January 31, 2007 8:54 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At January 31, 2007 8:54 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

I see that La Tour Eiffel, Eiffel Tower, call it what you will, plans to turns off its light-projectors, all 336 of them, for five minutes tomorrow night as a pointer to the release Friday of a U.N. report on climate change, the environment and energy consumption. Hard to say how effective such a short-lived off/on will be but it could make an interesting picture.

At January 31, 2007 9:19 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

La Tour Eiffel is the name of the said tower, it is not 'better known' as 'Eiffel Tower'. The latter is a translation of its name with which I have no problem. The 'better known' approach is insidious Anglo Saxon imperialism.I admit I don't much like the 'also' either, but Colin has to make a living and his readership is difficult.

Its not just la Tour Eiffel which is turned off. I think its all public lights and private ones if people choose to follow the movement. It's an action against the lack of effort in the reduction of energy use in general and by the USA in particular.No doubt the retort will be that the French are good at empty gestures. At least they're not malign gestures.

At January 31, 2007 10:33 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Market forces govern so many of our lives. To quote Lech Walesa: "The supply of words in the world market is plentiful but the demand is falling." This wasn't said in the context of freelance journalism, of course, and he followed it with: "Let deeds follow words now." But it's still quite apposite.
The wire story I saw only mentioned the lights on the tower being switched off. But all public lights and as many private lights as can be mustered -- now that WILL be a picture. And a gesture, I suspect, that will be seen -- outside of malign right-wing American political circles -- as anything but empty.


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