Françoise Bornet, the subject of one of the most iconic kissing photos ever — taken in Paris, France — has died aged 93.
The story of Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Town Hall) taken by French photographer Robert Doisneau on a Rolleiflex is a fascinating one. Taken in April 1950, Doisneau was on assignment for Life magazine, his brief was to illustrate love in Paris.
Doisneau actually set the photo up. After spotting Bornet kissing her then-boyfriend Jacques Carteaud he asked if they would re-enact it and ended up taking several photos of them around the city.
The image appeared in Life magazine in 1950 and was largely forgotten about until 1986 when a poster company discovered the photo and turned it into a global hit. The photo, taken on the busy Rue de Rivoli, clearly struck a chord with the masses as the photo was plastered onto postcards, chocolate boxes, and even shower curtains.
It was assumed that the photo was a spontaneous snap which led to a series of couples claiming that they were the lovers in the photo. Imposters Jean-Louis and Denise Lavernge tried to file a lawsuit in 1992 claiming that it was them. This prompted Bornet to come forward and prove she was the girl by producing a signed original print from the photographer Doisneau. “They were trampling on a memory that was mine,” she said.
However, Bornet also sued in a bid for a share of the profits. Both lawsuits were rejected by the court, but Doisneau was forced to come forward and admit that he had staged the photo.
“I would never have dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate,” the photographer said before his death in 1994. His daughter claimed that the controversy over the picture caused him a great deal of stress in his final years, according to The Times of London.
The lovers in the photo were not together for very long, Bornet married a man called Alain but did say that her romance with Carteaud was genuine. “Jacques looked a bit like Burt Lancaster. We split up when he met someone else and we lost touch,” she said.
In 2005, she sold the original photo given to her by Doisneau for 155,000 Euros ($169,000) which was a great deal higher than the auction estimate of 20,000 Euros ($21,827).
In an interview in 2022, she recalled meeting Doisneau in 1950s Paris, “I was with my boyfriend. We didn’t stop kissing … Robert Doisneau asked us to pose for him. We did a series of snapshots. They appeared in Life magazine but no one paid attention.”
Bornet enjoyed life to the full, smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky until her death on Christmas Day at her home in Evreux, Normandy.
“The most beautiful view of the Hotel de Ville is the one where you see it the least. Au revoir dear Françoise Bornet,” saluted Emmanuel Gregoire, the deputy mayor of Paris.
Image credits: Robert Doisneau