Doisneau was known for his modest, playful, and ironic images of amusing juxtapositions, mingling social classes, and eccentrics in contemporary Paris streets and cafes. Influenced by the work of André Kertész, Eugène Atget, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, in more than twenty books he presented a charming vision of human frailty and life as a series of quiet, incongruous moments.
“The marvels of daily life are so exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street” Robert Doisneau.
Doisneau's work gives unusual prominence and dignity to children's street culture; returning again and again to the theme of children at play in the city, unfettered by parents. His work treats their play with seriousness and respect. In his honour, and owing to this, there are several Ecole Primaire (primary schools) named after him. An example is at Véretz (Indre-et-Loire).
Doisneau's father, a plumber, died in active service in World War I when Robert was about four. His mother died when he was seven. He then was raised by an unloving aunt.
At thirteen he enrolled at the École Estienne, a craft school from which he graduated in 1929 with diplomas in engraving and lithography. There he had his first contact with the arts, taking classes in figure drawing and still life.
When he was 16 he took up amateur photography, but was reportedly so shy that he started by photographing cobble-stones before progressing to children and then adults. At the end of the 1920s Doisneau found work as a draughtsman (lettering artist) in the advertising industry at Atelier Ullmann (Ullmann Studio), a creative graphics studio that specialised in the pharmaceutical industry. Here he took an opportunity to change career by also acting as camera assistant in the studio and then becoming a staff photographer.
In 1931 he left both the studio and advertising, taking a job as an assistant with the modernist photographer André Vigneau. In 1932 he sold his first photographic story to Excelsior magazine. In 1934 he began working as an industrial advertising photographer for the Renault car factory at Boulogne-Billancourt. Working at Renault increased Doisneau’s interest in working with photography and people. In 1991 he admitted that the years at the Renault car factory marked “the beginning of his career as a photographer and the end of his youth.” Five years later, in 1939, he was fired because he was constantly late. He was forced to try freelance advertising, engraving, and postcard photography to earn his living. At that time the French postcard industry was the largest in Europe, postcards served as greetings cards as well as vacation souvenirs.
In 1939 he was hired by Charles Rado of the Rapho photographic agency and travelled throughout France in search of picture stories. This is where he took his first professional street photographs. Doisneau worked at Rapho until the outbreak of World War II, whereupon he was drafted into the French army as both a soldier and photographer. He was in the army until 1940 and from then until the end of the war in 1945 used his draughtsmanship, lettering artistry, and engraving skills to forge passports and identification papers for the French Resistance.
Some of Doisneau's most memorable photographs were taken after the war. He returned to freelance photography and sold photographs to Life and other international magazines. He briefly joined the Alliance Photo Agency but rejoined the Rapho agency in 1946 and remained with them throughout his working life, despite receiving an invitation from Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum Photos. His photographs never ridiculed the subjects; thus he refused to photograph women whose heads had been shaved as punishment for sleeping with Germans.
“I don't photograph life as it is, but life as I would like it to be”. Robert Doisneau”
In 1948 he was contracted by Vogue to work as a fashion photographer. The editors believed he would bring a fresh and more casual look the magazine but Doisneau didn’t enjoy photographing beautiful women in elegant surroundings; he preferred street photography. When he could escape from the studio, he photographed ever more in the streets of Paris.
Group XV was established in 1946 in Paris to promote photography as art and drawing attention to the preservation of French photographic heritage. Doisneau joined the Group in 1950 and participated alongside Rene-Jacques, Willy Ronis, and Pierre Jahan.
The 1950s were Doisneau's peak, but the 1960s were his wilderness years. In the 1970s Europe began to change and editors looked for new reportage that would show the sense of a new social era. All over Europe, the old-style picture magazines were closing as television received the public's attention. Doisneau continued to work, producing children's books, advertising photography, and celebrity portraits including Alberto Giacometti, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso.
Doisneau worked with writers and poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Jacques Prévert, and he credited Prevert with giving him the confidence to photograph the everyday street scenes that most people simply ignored.