Willy Ronis




More so than his famous contemporaries, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Brassaï, Willy Ronis is remembered foremost as the photographer of Paris. Whilst Ronis’ vision is more romantic, humanist and poetic than his counterparts, throughout his long career he endeavoured to capture the true spirit of the city and its people.

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Early Life

Ronis was born in Paris on 14 August 1910. Both his parents were Jewish refugees who had fled to France to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe. His father was a studio photographer and the young Ronis helped with printing and retouching. Ronis found the studio environment oppressive, however, and became preoccupied with drawing and music. He spent time in the Louvre studying the Old Masters but started taking photographs at the age of 15 when his father gave him a Kodak camera. He became a talented violinist and would later draw similarities between music and photography, saying, “many of my photographs are taken from above, either looking down or up, three planes in one image, like three different melodies in a fugue which work together to give the piece structure and harmony”. Ronis gave up music to take over the studio in 1932 when his father became ill.

Early Photography

Ronis’ early photography was preoccupied with social unrest and the rise of the leftist Popular Front. His first published photograph shows a street demonstration on Bastille Day 1936 and he maintained a lifelong commitment to leftist causes. Despite the political intent with which Ronis’ career began, he is best remembered for his romanticised vision of Paris and its inhabitants. He preferred to walk around his local area of Belleville-Ménilmontant with camera in hand rather than travel. Ronis described the spontaneity of this approach, saying, “most of my photographs were taken on the spur of the moment, very quickly, just as they occurred”. Whilst this aligns Ronis’ work with the “decisive moment” of his friend, Cartier-Bresson, whereas the latter’s photography maintained the distanced gaze of the street photographer ‘par excellence’, the former’s is coloured by the intimacy and empathy with which he knew and understood the people of Paris.

The War

During the Second World War Ronis was a meteorologist with the French air force and served briefly with the artillery. He refused to wear the Star of David during the Nazi Occupation and fled south of the occupied territory. He discovered a passion for the landscape and culture of Southern France and would return to Provence in 1972 when he became a photography teacher at the School of Fine Arts, Avignon and Saint Charles, Marseille. During the war he also met his wife, Marie-Anne Lansiaux, who became the subject of one of his most famous photographs, Nu provençal (1949). The photograph shows Marie-Anne washing at a sink in a rustic room whilst on holiday in Provence. Ronis photographed her again much later whilst she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, hidden almost completely in an autumnal forest.

Exhibitions and Awards

Ronis won the Prix Kodak in 1947 but rather than joining the Magnum Photo Agency, recently established by his friends, David Seymour and Robert Capa, he took up with the Rapho Agency whose members included Doisneau and Brassaï. In 1955 Ronis was included in Edward Steichen’s vast ‘Family of Man’ exhibition that encapsulated the humanist spirit of photography at the time. In his later career Ronis went on to enjoy an array of awards and honours including the Prix Nadar (1981), being made Honoured Photographer at Les Rencontres d’Arles (1980) and Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1986). In 1995 the Museum of Modern Art commissioned a touring retrospective that was intended to mark his centenary. Ronis died, however, at the age of 99 on 12 September 2009, the year before the exhibition opened.


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