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Willy Ronis 1910-2009

September 18, 2009

Le Vigneron Giroudin, 1945


Willy Ronis, whose lyric black-and-white photographs of courting couples, busy street scenes and children at play lent a gentle but enduring mystique to postwar, working-class Paris, died in Paris on Saturday. He was 99.

His death was confirmed by his close friend and fellow photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood.

Mr. Ronis, like his colleagues Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï, wandered the streets of Paris, open to serendipity, which usually found him. His carefully composed images showed ordinary people doing ordinary things, unaware that immortality was just a camera click away.

His lens captured, in photographs that have become synonymous with Paris, a small boy racing home with a baguette under his arm, lovers gazing out at the city from the tower of the Bastille, two children playing on an empty barge on the Seine, a woman’s legs stepping over a puddle as they mounted a curb on the Place Vendôme.

“He was one of the finest photographers of his generation,” said Paul Ryan, the author of “Willy Ronis” (Phaidon, 2001). “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.”

Willy Ronis was born on Aug. 14, 1910, in Paris, where his parents, Jews from Odessa and Lithuania, had taken refuge from the czarist pogroms and started a photography studio. Willy, a skilled draftsman, helped retouch photographic prints as a child, and at 15 his father gave him a camera. His ambition, though, was to become a concert violinist.

Pressured by his father, he began studying law at the Sorbonne, but he continued his music lessons, which he paid for by playing in a restaurant orchestra. When his father became ill with cancer in 1932, Mr. Ronis took a more active role in the photography studio, where he met and befriended David Seymour, Robert Capa and Cartier-Bresson.

In 1936, after his father’s death, Mr. Ronis sold the family business and set up as a freelance photographer, doing commercial work and, using a Rolleiflex camera, documenting the strikes and demonstrations associated with the rise of the Popular Front. His work at this time provided much of the material for his book “Photo-Reportage: The Hunt for Images” (1951), which he always regarded as the best explanation of his methods and approach.

After the fall of France in 1940, Mr. Ronis fled south to Vichy France and spent a year with a traveling theatrical troupe. When the Germans occupied the south of France, he went into hiding.

During this period he met his future wife, the painter Marie-Anne Lansiaux, subject of one of his most famous photographs, “Provençal Nude” (1949), which showed her washing at a sink as sunlight poured in from a nearby window. She died in 1991. There are no immediate survivors.

In 1944 Mr. Ronis returned to Paris, where he photographed French prisoners and deportees returning from Nazi captivity. In 1946 he joined the Rapho photo agency, where his colleagues included Doisneau and Sabine Weiss. The agency’s signature was humanistic photography.

After settling in Belleville, a working-class neighborhood, he spent several years recording the everyday scenes that made up his first book, “Belleville-Ménilmontant” (1954). Paris was also the subject of “Sur le Fil du Hasard” (“With Chance as My Guide”), published in 1980, and “My Paris” (1985).

The warmth and human interest of his photographs won him a following in France. “It is my contemporaries who most interest me, ordinary people with ordinary lives,” he told The New York Times in 2005, when a retrospective of his work at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris was drawing enormous crowds. “I have never sought out the extraordinary or the scoop. I looked at what complemented my life. The beauty of the ordinary was always the source of my greatest emotions.”

Mr. Ronis became known in the United States when his work began appearing in Life magazine. Edward Steichen included him in two important exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, “Five French Photographers” in 1951 and “The Family of Man” in 1955.

In the late 1960s, after teaching part time in Paris, Mr. Ronis moved to Provence, where he taught at schools in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles. His work was honored this year at the photography festival Rencontres d’Arles, which organized a retrospective of his work.

“I never took a mean photo,” he told The Associated Press in 2005. “I never wanted to make people look ridiculous. I always had a lot of respect for the people I photographed.”

Last month, when a reporter for Le Figaro asked him how he would like to be remembered, he said, “As a fine fellow and a good photographer.” — New York Times, Sep. 18

  1. mishari permalink*
    September 18, 2009 7:02 AM

    Wild boar, which disappeared from Britain in the 17th century, can indeed be a menace. A British friend of a friend of mine struck one in his car late at night. Both his legs were broken.

    He later received a letter from the mayor of the commune offering commiserations for his injuries and telling him that the boar, when split between the locals, had been extremely tasty.— John Lichfield on the proliferation of wild boar in France, The Indy, Aug. 31

    Les crapauds…doncha love ’em?

  2. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    September 18, 2009 10:18 AM

    Both his front legs or both his back legs?

  3. mishari permalink*
    September 18, 2009 10:45 AM

    His back legs. I imagine he uses his front legs to steer the car.

  4. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    September 18, 2009 1:16 PM

    Sorry for the cheap gag. Sorrier still that I don’t have time right now to read the rich and varied stuff on this blog, never mind GU. But I’d just say in passing that Willy was my favourite Parisian photographer/artist and a nice guy to boot.

    Oh, and there’s no ‘comments’ tag activated on this subject.

  5. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 18, 2009 1:54 PM

    I’ve never heard of him. Nice picture. What kind of blouse is the young lady wearing? Looks like some sort of fusion-type number.

  6. parallax permalink
    September 18, 2009 2:53 PM

    Thanks Mish – like MM I didn’t know the name but the “Provençal Nude” photo is fabulous – in a 1949 Vermeer sort of way – so I’ll check out more of his work.

    99 but? it’s a good innings.

    So, did you know Willy Ronis, or is this more like a community announcement? Either way doesn’t matter – another great post.

  7. parallax permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:21 PM

    btw – a new post on the doggerel thread

  8. mishari permalink*
    September 18, 2009 3:25 PM

    HLM, there is a ‘comments’ tag, it’s just at the top of the post…new theme=new layout…sorry. Tranquilo, hombre…your response was perfectly natural…the para quoted does leave one in some doubt as to whether it was the boar or the driver who had their legs broken.

    MM, I believe the young lady is wearing a top dans le modèle des hippies anglaises. (Is that right? Doubtless, HLM will correct me. Inez and the children are unavailable at the moment)..I suspect she’s an embryonic Johnny Halliday AKA Phil Smet fan (the chick in the photo, man…not my wife).

    Para, I regret to say that I didn’t ‘know’ Ronis, but I did meet him a few times and bought a few prints from him. A lovely man.

    Actually, on reflection, I think perhaps the darker patches on her blouse aren’t a hippy-ish affectation but the kind of wet patches attendant on kitchen work. “The cool vichyssoise soaked though her blouse and her nipples swelled in response…’Oh, Gaston…Gaston’ she murmured as she stroked her silken inner thigh and reached for a courgette…”

  9. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:06 PM

    I don’t think they are wet patches. It looks like the garment has been cobbled together out of several different patterns. I like the seated chap’s trousering – the waistband round the nipples should be more popular.

  10. pinkroom permalink
    September 19, 2009 12:08 AM

    It may look idyllic, and is photographed most tenderly, but I once spent the coldest Easter of my life in a room just like that Provencal Nude shot… no glass windows, just 200 y.o. wooden shutters full of holes, a stone floor and a door that didn’t reach to the top or bottom.

    To me that toilette sends a genuine shiver.

  11. mishari permalink*
    September 19, 2009 10:55 AM

    I’m troubled by a phenomenon that seems to be occuring with increasing frequency: the cessation of life-associated activities, i.e. walking, talking, breathing. What we doctors call ‘death’.

    This recent (well, I’ve just noticed it) development does not bode well for the rest of us. Clearly, I’m not alone in my concern:

  12. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 19, 2009 12:09 PM

    That song is a little too positive for my outlook, though I’m impressed by the Barrat homes in Melton Mowbray. Syd Barret homes would be something to see.

    I didn’t realise modern poems would be so hard to parody. They’re all so low-key and conversational they’re nearly homogeneous.

  13. mishari permalink*
    September 19, 2009 12:41 PM

    I could be wrong but I imagine it’s easiest to parody the moderns who have a predictable arsenal of stylistic tricks and themes, e.g. Ted Hughes: pike, crows, cruel nature, rocks, streams, woods etc.; Larkin: dusk, insomnia, fear, loathing, wanking, failure, etc.

    But I think you’re right. Generally speaking, poets like Carol Anne Duffy et al are difficult to parody because the success of a parody depends on the recognition factor. Most moderns have no especially recognisable style or thematic consistency. Best stick to the Stratford Grocer, Daffy Wordsworth and ‘Oh, Angel’ Blake…

  14. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 19, 2009 1:36 PM

    I wasn’t altogether happy with the Duffy I posted, though it couldn’t be much worse than the original. I’m thinking of tackling SM Pugh’s ‘Sometimes’.

  15. mishari permalink*
    September 19, 2009 5:16 PM

    The Duffy you posted where? What is this sudden fixation on parody? Speak, wretch or incur my displeasure….(adjusts giant self-portrait to catch the light properly and orders serfs to build more Potemkin villages beside the Gatwick Express rail line)

  16. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 19, 2009 8:59 PM

    On Dent’s parody blog on GU. I used Duffy’s ‘Prayer’ as a model.

    Mad Men + stuff arrived today. Thanks.

  17. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    September 19, 2009 9:36 PM

    Even when it’s not the theme it is the theme, right?

  18. mishari permalink*
    September 19, 2009 10:39 PM

    I mean, I like cats but I think Mowbray’s gone too far:

  19. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 19, 2009 11:59 PM

    Look at the furballs on that.

  20. mishari permalink*
    September 20, 2009 12:32 AM

    If I bite my tongue accidentally, it’ll hurt some but I’ll get over it. If that fellow bites his tongue he’ll amputate the damn thing. I dunno how any reputable surgeon squared that with their Hippocratic oath to ‘do no harm…’

    This is a little less, erm…disconcerting:

  21. mishari permalink*
    September 20, 2009 2:52 AM

    I think this is a great track. It’s a London trio–a fellow who plays turntable and twiddles knobs, another fellow who plays guitar and a girl who sings–and this is off their first LP, Turntable Soul Music (2007). I love the way they’ve taken the first few bars of the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grapelli classic and funked it up.

  22. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 20, 2009 10:52 PM

    Reminds me of something, but I can’t think what it is.

    Who said Fleet Foxes were good? I was forced to watch the Bestival footage and they were truly awful. I must say festivals seem quite different now. My daughter came home for a shower mid-event, which is surely inimical to the spirit of the event. I suppose personal hygiene wasn’t top of the agenda (or even on it, in some cases) in the 70s, but even if it was a quick splash of the face, maybe a token dab at the armpit, would have been considered sufficient. The youth of today are sadly depraved. Take away their hot water and they would be utterly lost.

  23. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 21, 2009 10:27 PM

    When Ronin took the snap, I was pouring
    yet another drink for Prince Mishari,
    truth to tell, he did get a leetle boring
    once he had got himself, ‘ow you say, ‘igh.

    As you see, he was a good-looking beau,
    his hair his best feature, curly and thick,
    covering his body from head to toe,
    rustling under his clothes, which were tres chic.

    His hi-top trousers supported his moobs,
    and his shirt carried enough gravy stains
    to keep him going if he was short of food:
    alcohol replaced blood in his veins.

    It’s a pity Ronin took that photo
    while I wore that blouse, a maman retread,
    luckily he was gone a bit later, though,
    when I cracked the bottle on the Prince’s head.

  24. mishari permalink*
    September 21, 2009 10:58 PM

    Ah, well…I’ve lost a bit of weight since then and I lost the ‘tache and the dirty fingernails. I take it you’re still wearing dresses, though…

    With my children approaching their teens, I take this warning from history very seriously:

  25. MeltonMowbray permalink
    September 22, 2009 11:28 PM

    Good luck with the adolescents. I think my son’s teenagery put twenty years on me, which makes me 75. I hope you can avoid the century.

  26. mishari permalink*
    September 23, 2009 9:57 AM

    I’m not too worried about the boys: they’re sceptical, pragmatic hard-cases, tough as old boots. No, it’s the girls that have me waking up in a cold sweat.

    My greatest fear is that, like so many clever, beautiful girls, they’ll be attracted to the most unsuitable boys–the troublemakers who are always being expelled from school, having scrapes with the law, boys who experiment with sex and drugs and have no respect for authority–in short, teen-age boys very like the teen-age boy I was.

    I can’t warn them off boys like that because, in my experience, there’s no more effective aphrodisiac but I swear, if a boy who reminds me of my young self ever comes through the door, I’ll shoot the bastard.

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