Secret City: Jason Langer and Robert Doisneau


Written by Philippa Lewis
24 Monday 24th November 2008

Robert Doisneau’s images have today become synonymous with Paris: even if you haven’t heard his name before, you’re bound to have seen reproductions of his work on calendars, notebooks and postcards. However, there hasn’t been a serious retrospective of his work in the UK since 1992 and so the Michael Hoppen Gallery’s exhibition this winter is both timely and refreshing. By displaying rare vintage prints of Doisneau’s photographs alongside a retrospective of contemporary, award-winning photographer Jason Langer’s urban portraits and nudes, Secret City encourages comparisons between both artists and their aims, drawing out striking similarities and differences in their portrayal of urban life.

Doisneau, Couples Kissing

The influence of Doisneau on Langer is clear, shown primarily by the similarities in subject matter, yet the subjects are approached in very different ways. One good example of this is to look at Doisneau’s Couple Kissing alongside Langer’s Elevator. Doisneau’s photograph may today seem to be verging slightly on the sentimental, but the image is still a fantastically framed moment, capturing an extraordinary and powerful sense of joy and spectacle in an ordinary scene. Doisneau’s interest was in people: he was aware that every day in the city we pass millions of people without knowing who they are or what they’re doing, and his trick was to make a narrative out of these passing moments, make the unfamiliar familiar. Doisneau’s images are full of a sense of tenderness, nostalgia and sometimes humour, and it’s this which still makes his work fresh and appealing today.

Langer, St Germain, 2002

Langer’s Elevator reveals a different focus: the faces of the embracing couple are turned away from the camera, making what could have been a reassuringly familiar image unfamiliar, and slightly sinister. Langer is brilliant at producing this effect: while hinting at and referencing the side of city-life known to us from photographs and films, whether of Paris, London or New York, he deliberately incorporates an unsettling sense of alienation and inconsistency into his images. Saint-Germain, for example, shows a faded, archaic map of the Saint-Germain area, with a hand behind holding a smouldering cigarette.

Doisneau, L'enfer Boite De Nuit, 1952

This can be seen to reference various Godard films, nonchalant young men wandering the streets of Paris, Galois in hand. But by deliberately obscuring the body behind the map, only revealing its hand, Langer refuses to develop a narrative, and leaves the image blank for the viewer to decipher. Similarly in Woman in the Window, the lantern-laced branches twinkling in the night correspond to stereotypical views of Paris (tree-lined squares, cafés and fêtes), but the figure of the woman in the window casts an unsettling sense of doubt over the scene.

Langer, Woman in Window

While Doisneau’s photographs aim to familiarise the alienating modern city, Langer is inspired by the unfamiliar and alien, deliberately emphasising it in his images. By displaying these two fantastic bodies of work side by side, Secret City is a real exploration and celebration both of the artists and their medium, and of the modern cityscape.


Doisneau, Le accordéoniste Pierrette d'Orient, 28 ans Paris,1953

You can visit Secret City at the Michael Hoppen Gallery from 25 Nov 08 until 20 Jan 09.

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