French humanist photography



Between photo-journalism and picturesque paintings of society, humanist photography is a superb witness of people’s mannerisms and customs. The core of this artistic current occurred after WWII through to the late 1960s. The photographs of Robert DOISNEAU, Édouard BOUBAT, BRASSAÏ, Willy RONIS, and others, fed the newspapers and magazines of the era …and are often reproduced today. These photographs – charged with emotion and capturing fleeting moments of everyday life – have the undeniable documentary value of authenticity, but simultaneously, via their black and white medium, express a certain aesthetic of nostalgia. Over the years, this duality has particularly attracted collectors who, today, are not frightened to pay high prices for big names in photography.

With digital photography now “invading” contemporary art, traditional photography retains a strong seductive attraction, particularly when it portrays social archetypes, anecdotal scenes and picturesque places, going back two or three generations. The humanists include such internationally renowned photographers as Doisneau, Brassaï, Boubat and Ronis. Their photographs regularly appear in contemporary magazines. The movement also includes less well-known photographers like Jean DIEUZAIDE, Janine NIÉPCE and Jean-Philippe CHARBONNIER, all exhibited at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (at its Richelieu, Paris site) until 28 January 2007.

The two key names associated with humanist photography are undoubtedly Robert Doisneau and Brassaï. 2005 was an excellent year for Doisneau: his price index gained more than 50% and his famous Baiser de l’hôtel de ville (1950) set a new personal record when it shot past its estimate at Artcurial, Paris, finally selling for EUR 155,020 (25 April 2005)! That sale significantly stimulated the market for subsequent prints of the same photograph. For example, on 16 May last, a print of the now emblematic Baiser – reproduced in roughly 1985 – sold for GBP 9,500 (close to EUR 14,000) at Sotheby’s in London. 10 years before that, subsequent prints of the same photograph were valued at between EUR 1,500 and 3,500, i.e. roughly the same price one would expect to pay today for one of Doisneau’s less “iconic” photographs. As a photographer of some of the greatest artists of his era, Doisneau captured Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso. These shots attracted strong bidding the last time they were auctioned: Les Pains de Picasso, a photograph taken in1952 (printed in 1987) and estimated at EUR 600 by Sotheby’s, actually sold for EUR 6,000 on 12 October last in Paris. The works of Doisneau (who was known as “the Paris eye”) are currently being exhibited at the Hôtel de Ville de Paris until 17 February 2007 (Paris en liberté since the 19 October 2006).

The success, at the beginning of October, of the sale of 764 lots from the estate of Brassaï at Million & Associés (Paris) has bolstered the confidence of collectors in their acquisitive taste for humanist photography. In 10 years Brassaï’s price index has multiplied by 5; in 2005 alone it gained over 150%, and at the sales of 2 and 3 October 2006 several new personal records were set with works that doubled, tripled and pulverised their estimations! Even if Brassaï’s price record is still well behind that of Doisneau, his Pavés (1931), which sold at Million & Associés on 3 October, nevertheless generated his all-time record at EUR 85,000. Some photographs were affordable at less than EUR 3,000 such as Montagne de poireaux et de navets aux Halles (1936 and signed), which sold for EUR 1,600.

In fact, “humanist” photographs can still be acquired in a reasonable price range of between 1 and 3 thousand euros. The works of Janine Niépce, Jean Dieuzaide, Edouard Boubat and Izis are accessible in this range, as are the photographs of Ronis. The photographer Pierre-Jean Amar printed some of Ronis’s best shots and collated them into four portfolios. Portfolio n°2 entitled L’ombre du pain contains 7 photos by Ronis, duly signed and printed in a series of 30 (of which 5 ex-circulation). Offered for sale at Tajan in Paris on 30 May 2002, the portfolio went under the hammer for EUR 3,000. So far, no photograph by Ronis has broken the EUR 10,000 threshold whereas 2 by Izis have. The last to do so (on 15 April 2003), entitled La Pluie, had a prestigious history as it came from the surrealist painter André BRETON‘s personal collection. Estimated at EUR 1,800, the Izis print went under the hammer for EUR 10,500 at Calmels-Cohen in Paris. As always in photography, the aura surrounding the model and the origin of the print are key parameters in the final price of a given work.