"The surprising lightness of a Peruvian mummy," Musée de l’Homme (1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

“The surprising lightness of a Peruvian mummy,” Musée de l’Homme (1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau, all images via Flammarion)

From 1942 to 1943, while Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany, photographer Robert Doisneau documented the ongoing work of the scientists in the city’s natural history museum. It wasn’t until 1990 that Doisneau returned to the project, and only this October that the series of images went on public view in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum, and its accompanying catalogue (in French) published by Flammarion, reveals the taxidermy, bones, piles of pressed plants, and people dedicated, despite the turmoil of the wartime city, to their care and study.

Cover of 'Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum' (click to enlarge)

Cover of ‘Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum’ (click to enlarge)

The black-and-white photographs are exhibited in the atrium of the Grande galerie de l’évolution (Grand Gallery of Evolution), overlooking its parade of taxidermy animals. The building is part of a complex of Paris natural history museums in the Jardin des Plantes, including spaces dedicated to human history, mineralogy, herbaria, paleontology, and a zoological park of live animals. It’s in all these places that Doisneau photographed portraits of the scientific workers for a never-completed project for publisher Maximilien Vox.

A woman gently cradles a Peruvian mummy’s weathered body, its mouth a gaping scream; a bearded man in a beret carefully examines the brittle plants of a herbarium by the sunlight streaming through a window. A giraffe has its fur brushed with a street sweeping broom; a man in the shadowy arched paleontology storage pulls a bone out of a wooden box like an explorer in a crypt. Every photograph has a reverence for its subjects, whether the undignified dead jaguar being hauled away in a wheelbarrow, or a gardener considering the blooms of delicate orchids in a greenhouse. The 1990 photographs, commissioned by museum director Alain Foucault, have a similarly dreamlike quality to their behind-the-scenes views, such as a taxidermy gorilla waiting alone on an outdoor elevator.

Doisneau, who passed away in 1994, is better known for his Paris street photographs, like a couple kissing on the sidewalk as foot traffic blurs around them. The natural history images, taken when the photographer was just 30, demonstrate the same human interest in capturing individual moments of life in the chaos of the city.

"A gorilla in an elevator," at the Zoothèque, Laboratoire Mammifères et oiseaux (laboratory of mammals and birds) (1990) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

“A gorilla in an elevator,” at the Zoothèque, Laboratoire Mammifères et oiseaux (laboratory of mammals and birds) (1990) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

'Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum' (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

‘Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

'Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum' (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

‘Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Collection box : Neptudines (beetles), Laboratoire d’entomologie (entomology laboratory) (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

Collection box : Neptudines (beetles), Laboratoire d’entomologie (entomology laboratory) (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

André Guillaumin, a professor in the Laboratoire de culture (culture laboratory) (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

André Guillaumin, a professor in the Laboratoire de culture (culture laboratory) (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

The garden outside the museum in winter (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

The garden outside the museum in winter (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

Garden glasshouse, Laboratoire de culture (culture laboratory) (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

Garden glasshouse, Laboratoire de culture (culture laboratory) (1942 or 1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

Auscultation of a feverish chimpanzee, Parc zoologique de Paris (zoological park of Paris) (1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

Auscultation of a feverish chimpanzee, Parc zoologique de Paris (zoological park of Paris) (1943) (© Atelier Robert Doisneau)

Robert Doisneau, Un Photographe au Muséum continues through January 18, 2016 at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (36 rue Geoffroy St Hilaire, Paris). The accompanying catalogue is out now from Flammarion

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...