Paris, Mon Amour

For photographer Robert Doisneau, finding an openly affectionate couple in the City of Light was as easy as falling in love

In 1950, photographer Robert Doisneau got an assignment from Life to shoot for one of those sentimental stories the weekly magazine was wont to run in those days. Armed with his trusty Rolleiflex, Doisneau, who was already celebrated for his intimate portrayals of life on the City of Light's back streets, strolled over to the seventh arrondissement and took a seat at Le Villars, a sidewalk café across the street from René Simon's acting school and just a few minutes' walk from the Rodin Museum, where the world's most famous marble kiss still holds pride of place. Presently he saw what he knew he must see sooner or later: a young couple kissing in public, as they always did in Paris, and, indeed, still do today.

Doisneau approached the couple, Françoise Delbart, 20, and Jacques Carteaud, 23, who were both aspiring actors. "He told us we were charming, and asked if we could [kiss] again for the camera," Françoise recalls today. "We didn't mind. We were used to kissing. We were doing it all the time then—it was delicious. And Monsieur Doisneau was adorable, very low key, very relaxed.

"Monsieur Doisneau took us to three different places for the picture," Françoise recalls. "We walked, of course. It was a lark, a wonderful, carefree moment for us. All we had to do was stand about 15 feet from him and kiss. First he took some pictures on the Place de la Concorde, then on the Rue de Rivoli, and finally the Hôtel de Ville."

It was at the Hôtel de Ville that Doisneau got it right: in the foreground, an anonymous customer seated at a sidewalk café; on the sidewalk, an equally anonymous crowd, but a passing gent is wearing a beret—parfait! On the street, a couple of Citroën Traction Avant cars, as archetypically French as a movie starring Jean Gabin. In the background looms the pastry cook's bulk of the city hall. And, gloriously center stage, as every actor yearns to be, Delbart and Carteaud.

Called Le Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville, the photograph was published in the June 12, 1950, issue of Life. It would become one of the most recognized in the world, endlessly reproduced on postcards and posters all over the planet.

Less than a year after it was taken, Delbart and Carteaud broke up. Delbart appeared in several moderately successful movies (including Les Grandes Familles) but never became a star. At age 33, she met and married "the man of my life"—Alain Bornet, a documentary and promotional filmmaker—and gave up acting to help with the business. The couple had no children. Carteaud abandoned acting entirely and became a winegrower in the South of France. He died last year.

Robert Doisneau continued as a freelance photographer, associated with the Parisian photo agency Rapho until his death in 1994, two weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. No picture he ever shot received as much attention—or controversy—as his famous kiss. A reproduction of the photograph on the cover of the French magazine Telerama in July 1988 brought forward several women claiming to be the object of Carteaud's affection. Only Françoise Bornet, though, was able to produce the original print that Doisneau had sent her and which bore his stamp on the back. The photographer authenticated both it and her. A second controversy arose when Françoise revealed that what had looked for all the world like a spontaneous snapshot had in fact been set up.

Last April, Bornet put the photograph up for auction at the Artcurial Art Gallery on the Champs-Elysées; she expected to get about $25,000 for it, but to the cheers, laughter and applause of Artcurial's normally restrained habitués, the bidding crested at 155,000 Euros—more than $200,000, depending on the exchange rate. "This romantic picture is the mirror of our youth for my wife and myself," said the anonymous Swiss collector who phoned in the winning bid. Madame Bornet is now planning to use the windfall to set up a film production company with her husband. As for whether this romantic picture was staged, she offers a classically Gallic answer: it was, she says, "the posed picture that wasn't a pose because we were kissing spontaneously."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.