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September 3, 2019

The Photo Was Posed, But the Kiss Was Real: The Story Behind the Most Famous Kiss Photo by Robert Doisneau in 1950

Although not as iconic as Alfred Eisenstaedt’s the sailor kiss on the V-E Day, Robert Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville or Kiss at City Hall) taken on a Parisian street in 1950, is considered one of the most romantic and popular photos ever taken. Although Doisneau worked in Paris as a street photographer and stole many an intimate moment of Parisian couples, this classic shot was staged.

Le baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville by Robert Doisneau (1950)

After the picture appeared in the LIFE magazine series it lay forgotten for 31 years until a publisher called Doisneau asking to make a poster of the The Kiss shot. The poster was a huge hit, and soon posters and postcards were sold all over the world. The image brought Doisneau fame but it also brought a lot of headaches too. Since the success of the poster, many couples have come forward claiming to be the couple in the picture. Doisneau was not threatened by the claims, as he knew he had used models to pose for the kiss. “All these people who see themselves in the picture,” Doisneau said in a interview with Le Monde, “I found it charming.”

Still, he greeted the claims with gentleness. His daughter Annette Doisneau, who worked as an assistant for Robert, remembers meeting one of the couples with her father. Even though he knew that their claim was false, “He said nothing,” she said. “I asked him why he hadn’t told them the truth. He said he didn’t want to shatter their dream.” Not denying the claims would cost Robert dearly. In 1993 Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne took him to court claiming that they were the couple in the picture and demanding compensation for “taking the picture without their knowledge,” because under French law an individual owns the rights to their own likeness. The court action forced Doisneau to reveal that he posed the shot using Françoise Delbart and Jacques Carteaud, lovers whom he had just seen kissing, but had not photographed initially because of his natural reserve; he approached them and asked if they would repeat the kiss. He won the court case against the Lavergnes. In a 1992 interview, Doisneau said: “I would have never dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.”

The couple in The Kiss were Françoise Delbart, 20, and Jacques Carteaud, 23, both aspiring actors. In 2005 Françoise Bornet (née Delbart) stated that, “He told us we were charming, and asked if we could kiss again for the camera. We didn’t mind. We were used to kissing. We were doing it all the time then, it was delicious. Monsieur Doisneau was adorable, very low key, very relaxed.” They posed at the Place de la Concorde, the Rue de Rivoli and finally the Hôtel de Ville.

The photograph was published in 12 June 1950, issue of LIFE. The relationship between Delbart and Carteaud only lasted for nine months. Even though they are forever linked in the picture as one of the most romantic couples they didn’t stay in touch. “I now think of it as a picture that should never really have existed,” Ms. Bornet said. She added maybe with regret: “The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.” Delbart continued her acting career, but Carteaud gave up acting to become a wine producer.

Carteaud recognized himself and Bornet in the widely distributed poster but never thought to say anything about it. In 1993, a friend sent him articles in the French press about the photograph and he decided to come out of the wilderness. “I recognized Francoise and me in the photo,” he said. “Without any doubt, it’s us. I remember it as a time when I called her ‘my little pussycat’ and we were great lovers.”

Françoise Bornet, in 2005, with a print of the Doisneau photograph in which she appears. (Photo: Eric Feferberg/Getty Images)

In 2005 Françoise Bornet sold the original print of the photograph, bearing Doisneau’s signature and stamp, as part of the payment for her “work”, at an auction via the Paris auctioneers Artcurial Briest-Poulain-Le Fur for €155,000, more than 10 times what it was expected to fetch. A surprised Mrs. Bornet told the French media that she would use the proceeds to set up a film production company with her husband.

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