Doisneau’s All Seeing Eye

A slice of contemporary automotive life through the lens of an artist.


Principally known in his later years, alongside better-known contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson for his photojournalism work, Robert Doisneau captured on camera the working atmosphere of the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt during their pre-war peak in the mid 1930’s. Drawn to the camera aged around sixteen, Doisneau was so shy he preferred to capture inanimate objects such as the cobblestones and architecture where he lived, progressing to human subjects some time later.

Several photographic jobs, first with a pharmaceutical company and subsequently some advertising studios led to him, aged 22 joining Renault in 1934 as one of three photographers initially employed to document the factory machinery, soon followed by the inhabitants required by Billancourt to produce Renault’s vehicles.

Lessons swiftly learnt included avoiding photography when employees were on a break, as this could quite easily lead to union involvement; another being to befriend fork lift truck and crane drivers in order to get to less accessible places other photographers might shun.

The headline picture sees two of the republic’s two leading automotive protagonists discussing, well, what exactly? One doubts the weather or each other’s welfare; Louis unhealthy dislike of André is well documented – In that sixtieth of a second, Doisneau has captured an eternal moment that we can only dare to imagine the consequences of.

The photographer’s close proximity suggests (to me) Louis planned this moment of confrontation, as opposed to bumping into André at the Grand Palais. Was Doisneau made aware of this meeting, or is his skill for finding the right moment showing through already? My thoughts rest with the latter.

Although few figures can be seen here, the atmosphere created by the gigantic press shop machines conjures up sights and sounds as if from a battlefield; huge metronomic booms emanate from the ghastly looking devices which blend with the smoke and steam of the industrial nightmare, massive wheels and pistons relentlessly turn, debasing anything contained within this area to blackened faced hulks. Metal bends and is formed: here only men endure. Doisneau shows not only a head for heights but also considerable skill at not only procuring this lofty perch as much as balancing all his kit.[1]

Entitled La Pause, these two rogues ham it up for Doisneau, as one would expect most people to when having a lens practically stuck up ones olfactory senses. If indeed this picture was taken during a break from the production line, for the two men appear on a rooftop with what could easily be described as a tool bag, aside from the vin rouge. My belief being that these men were not in car production per-se; more perhaps from the foundry or a maintenance gang.

Whereas the next two pictures show people most definitely involved in making Renaults of the mid-thirties. Simply titled, Renault Worker the awkward glance of this young lady may poorly hide her embarrassment at having her photograph taken, or is she dreaming of the escape from the room filled with drudgery alongside her individually stationed and numbered, colleagues?

Whatever the process they perform, Doisneau captures a lesser known part of the production line. The chap (with a Picasso resemblance) under the rear wing, adjusting the brakes shows his indifference at having his picture taken. No doubt under stress to get the job done in time, this fellow’s concentration broken by the flashbulb reveals yet another instance of how little glamour the car production world had to offer.

Oblivious to Doisneau’s presence, the two men, pneus de voiture sur un camion somewhere in the factory yard appear to contain scant regard for much at all. To the left, our Gitane smoking character seems lost; be that in contemplation or in general where the more mature fellow probably realises just how short a break he’s getting before having to unload this incredibly balanced load when the truck reaches the line’s darker end.

Whilst light hearted in looks, our bus/truck chassis driver possess a comedic visage to this viewer, Doisneau’s picture portraying the biting cold the poor soul has to endure to deliver this chassis to Lord only knows where. As with so many roles within (or just outside) the factory showing a necessary but dismal part of the production jigsaw.

This picture of the factory itself is, from above, most attractive in shape. Curved yet also possessing a ship’s prow, the sheer scale can be made with the comparatively toy town bridges, connecting factory to mainland.[2] At this point in history, the factory employed around thirty thousand souls in what has been described as hell on Earth; from Doisneau’s airplane seat, one would never guess.

The final picture allows Doisneau’s flair to shine, finally, out in the open for a shot used in advertising; one Hélène Boucher in a Vivasport back in ‘34. The car’s elongated bonnet, the dropped windscreen, the (seemingly) tiny lady pilot. This car is openly attractive to both sexes; if a lady can drive a car like this, the modern Monsieur can also.

Though my suspicions are aroused; is the car actually moving or has Mme. Boucher been asked to mimic a hard left? Doisneau’s planning of this shot is meticulous; strong angles, superb lighting, heroine behind the wheel. Sadly Boucher, an accomplished pilot and land speed record holder died soon after this picture was taken in an aircraft accident.

As to Doisneau, he managed almost five years with Renault, before being sacked for continual unpunctuality, failing somewhat in damaging his reputation.

[1] Doisneau’s kit often weighed in excess of 20Kg’s, depending on which plate camera, flash gun, tripod, etc he was using. His use of 35mm came along once he had left Renault.

[2] Editor’s note: Renault’s Billancourt factory was state of the art; the envy of the industry at the time. Invited by Louis Renault to tour the facility, André Citroen, gripped by the urge to best his bitter rival, immediately set to gutting the Quai de Javel works at huge expense, placing the double chevron business into enormous debt. It is this, above all else which is widely believed to have been at the heart of Citroen’s catastrophic cashflow difficulties and eventual financial collapse in 1934.

All Images:

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

14 thoughts on “Doisneau’s All Seeing Eye”

  1. Superb. I love photographs of factories from the old days, and these are great ones. Following the link, I looked at dozens of Doiseau photographs. He had a long career and a style I find entrancing.

    There is a website in the US that has literally thousands of similar hi-res B&W photos, which include factory people toiling away at everything from making bottles to cars to table and floor radios (or wirelesses as we called them when I was a child in England), aircraft and steel making. I see M Doiseau had an eye for the attractive ladies, a point not missed in some of the American pictures. Back in the days when magazines offered the premier format for the average person to see the world, many photographers became well-known in their own right.

    If you find you have an interest in such things, here’s a link to the first page of factory photos which I find endlessly fascinating:

    The navigation to further pages is easily accomplished at the end of that first page, and the thumbnails are of decent size to easily get to one you’d like to examine. Click on that and once there, click on the pic and the hi-res image gets downloaded.

    The contrast of these older photos to the recent video produced by AMG showing a human automaton “hand-making” four cylinder AMG engines is striking. All evidence of anything but high tech machinery is sanitised from the AMG effort, except for the hand-wheeling about of trolley with an engine from station to station, presumably to give the poor bloke something to do and to be able to say the product was hand-made.

    One wonders if there were British photographers on missions like these of Boiseau decades ago to document working “life”. I have only seen a few examples here and there on the web. There is one of the Austin production line for B Series engines from 1952 or thereabouts; said line was touted as the most advanced around, but I cannot seem to re-find it. Oh well. I had a visit to an ICI factory in the North in 1971, and to say working conditions were primitive would be an understatement! Renault looked better 35 years earlier.

  2. Wow, what a brilliant article Andrew, had me captivated. This is another side to the motor industry you don’t normally see or hear of. Pioneering I’d say. Makes today’s photo shoots and videos look a bit tame. Ariel shots and perching on forklift trucks, brilliant. Done by drones these days. Thank you Andrew.

  3. Wonderful photos, and a great record of industrial history, Andrew. Thanks for bringing them to us. The last photo puts me in mind of a Tamara de Lempicka painting:

    For those who aren’t familiar with her, de Lempicka was famous for her Art Deco inspired works. The one above certainly isn’t one of her best, and the perspective is terrible! Here’s a better example of her work:

    The Boulogne-Billancourt factory may have been ‘hell on earth’ for the poor workers, but it does look like an amazing construction, with a facade in the Art Deco style.

    1. Thanks for posting, Daniel. I’m convinced the perspective was deliberately off, though. Fun fact: she had a Renault at the time

  4. Here’s a closer look at that facade:

    Sadly, the building was demolished in 2004/5

  5. Thanks for a well-deserved retrospective on this highly talented photographer. I have found a photograph of Mr Doisneau while making the photograph of Mme Boucher in the Renault which may shed some light on your question on whether the car was moving around a sharp bend or not:

    1. Aha, so the background in the photo above was just slightly out of focus, not blurred by the motion of the camera following a moving car. Thanks, Bruno

  6. Doisneau was also one of the select group of famous photographers that did work for Citroën in collaboration with the Robert Delpire agency (the others being André Martin, William Klein and Helmut Newton*). Here are two examples of Doisneau Citroën work:

    * Helmut Newton photographed the 1969 DS brochure for the Italian market, which was as far as I know not edited by Delpire

  7. Thank you very much for presenting these outstanding photographs, Andrew. What a joy!

  8. An excellent article and some superb images as well Andrew so thank you for your research and posting.
    Takes me back to our visit to the Porsche and Mercedes production lines a while back, although sadly no cameras allowed in either. How the world has changed over time. I shall never forget the pressing factory that’s for sure. my ears still hurt!

  9. Very interesting, and another subject which is new to me – thank you, Andrew.

    Wasn’t that factory featured in the Equinox film about Citroën, which was posted a while back?

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