When we visited Paris with M&B in April 2006, I pottered off on my own to see a great photo exhibition at the Hotel de Ville: Willy Ronis a Paris; its run had been extended by two months due to the overwhelming demand. Today we read that Willy Ronis has died, aged 99.
Ronis specialised in pictures that were not posed, concentrating on his native Paris, and most of all the patch around Belleville-Ménilmontant where he could photograph the local people, with whom he felt a close affinity. His pictures provide some of the most familiar images of the city.
“Most of my photographs were taken on the spur of the moment, very quickly, just as they occurred. All attention focuses on the specific instant, almost too good to be true, which can only vanish in the following one.” Willy Ronis
At the exhibition three years ago there were two periods in his work that stood out: images of workers, picket lines and trade union meetings during the Popular Front period of the 1930s; and the lyrical, post-war pictures of Parisian and Provencal scenes.
The Telegraph obituary says: ‘Ronis had a tender eye, photographing working-class neighbourhoods where men drank rough wine and children played on the streets. In Le Petit Parisien (1952), a young boy wearing shorts runs down the pavement, laughing, carrying a baguette that is as long as he is tall.
In Rue Rambuteau (1946), two waitresses stand behind the counter in a busy café, wearing aprons that are crumpled and dirty, leaving us in no doubt that their working days are long and hard. But with smoke rising from the grill and light falling across the scene, illuminating their hair, the documentary image is also a composition full of beauty.
Ronis photographed working men and women at leisure too: an old man plays pétanque in Aubagne, Provence (1947). Ronis catches him just after he releases the ball, and his stance is elegant, like that of a dancer, as the ball flies through the air.
In 1949 he took a famous photograph of his wife, naked, as she bathes at the sink at their holiday home in Gordes. The window shutter to her right is open, illuminating her body to reveal that Ronis, just as much as Cartier-Bresson, was a perfectionist in the use of light in his compositions.
The Independent: ‘One afternoon in 1949 in the South of France, Willy Ronis came upon his wife Marie-Anne washing. She stood on a stone flagged floor, her shoulders illuminated by the strong Provencal sun. “I said to her, ‘stay like that’ and taking the camera from the chest of drawers, went three steps up the staircase and shot three frames.” In that instant, Ronis made a portrait which has become emblematic of the romantic and wistful hedonism of post-war French photography. The innocent sensuality of a woman’s body, set against the roughness of floors and walls, the intricate tracery of leaves and branches seen through an open window, all present, a tableau of a momentary paradise’.
“He was one of the finest photographers of his generation. Although he is not as well known as Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson, among photographers he was always regarded as a master. It is very hard to go through one of his books and find a bad photograph. His sense of proportion, his framing of an image, was exquisite.” Paul Ryan, Willy Ronis (Phaidon, 2001)
It was in the inner city quartier of Belleville-Menilmontant that Ronis found the quintessential and traditional Paris that so inspired him. The Belleville project offered Ronis a myriad of photographic opportunities, and reasserted, after years of exile, his own sense of belonging, his love of cities and their peculiar serendipity, and his fascination with reportage.
In the Guardian’s obituary, Ananda Hokinson wrote: ‘When we met in Paris in 1992…he asked me if there was a photograph I had found that summarised “his” Paris. I mentioned that of a vitrier, mounting the steep cobbled hillside with the panes of glass on his back, as an image that had fixed the city in a light and a period that would never return. Within 24 hours I was to be proved wrong. As I descended the Butte de Montmartre to my flat, I saw the shade of Ronis’s photograph in a vitrier labouring towards me in his blue overalls, calling out his wares. What better testimony for a photographer than that reality had come to resemble his art?
Throughout his career, Willy Ronis’ work showed a love of humanity. “I never took a mean photo,” he said in 2005. “I never wanted to make people look ridiculous. I always had a lot of respect for the people I photographed.”