21st Apr 2018
More so than his 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.
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 and instead 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. The lyricism of Ronis’ compositional nuances coupled with the rhythm of his repeated shapes echo this early interest in music.
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.