Willy Ronis 1910-2009
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