boy & baguette
Boy & Baguette, by Willy Ronis
Text size

August 14, 1910, is the birthdate of the French photojournalist Willy Ronis, considered by critics and peers to have been one of the finest photographers of the 20th century, even if his name is less well-known than those of such contemporaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Brassai.

Ronis’ lesser fame may be attributable to his having largely focused his lens on street scenes and other prosaic subjects, and to an artistic idealism that prevented him from doing all that he could have to advance his career.

Willy Ronis was born in Paris to parents who both had emigrated from eastern Europe in response to turn-of-the-century anti-Jewish persecution. His father, from Odessa, Ukraine, opened a photography studio in Paris. His mother, born in Lithuania, worked as a piano teacher.

It was she who made sure that her son had a religious education and bar mitzvah (at Paris’ Grande Synagogue), although Willy adopted the agnostic belief system of his father.

Willy was a gifted violinist and aspiring composer. But he also helped his father out in the studio, so that, when the latter became sick, in 1932, he was able to fill in for him, while studying law at the Sorbonne. Only when his father died, in 1936, did Ronis close down the studio. It was then that he took up the career of a freelance photographer.

As someone who identified from a young age with the left, Ronis photographed political demonstrations, labor-union meetings and the rise of the Popular Front, which brought Socialist Leon Blum to the French prime ministership in 1936.

When the Germans occupied Paris, in 1940, Ronis fled south to the area under control of Vichy. There, he spent a year performing with a traveling theater troupe. When the Nazi occupation extended to Vichy as well, he went into hiding. (Ronis’ mother, who refused to leave Paris, survived the war with the help of local friends.)

It was during his time in the south that Ronis met Marie-Anne Lansiaux, an artist and committed communist, who was the subject of probably his best-known photograph, the 1949 “Provençal Nude,” in which a nude Marie-Anne (seen from the rear) does her ablutions at a small sink, as the southern French light pours in through an adjacent window.

Lansiaux returned with Ronis to Paris after liberation, in 1944; in the period that followed, he photographed prisoners and deportees returning home from German captivity.

In 1946, Ronis joined the reconstituted Rapho, a well-known, humanistic photojournalism agency founded before the war, whose other artists included Brassai and Robert Doisneau. He and Lansiaux took up residence in the working-class, heavily Jewish neighborhood of Belleville-Menelimontant, where he shot children, lovers and people going about their lives.

Ronis, the photographic historian Karen Adler has written, “humanized Belleville’s poverty and architectural decline.” As he himself described it, “The streets were a theater where you could see the real difficulties those mothers and housewives had, simply in shopping at the market.”

Though he never regarded himself as a fashion photographer, he supported his family (he and Lansiaux had one son, who died in 1998 in a hang-gliding accident) by taking commissions from magazines like Vogue and from advertising work. But there were also long periods when he wouldn’t do professional shoots, and instead worked as a photography teacher. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the family lived in Provence, for example, and Ronis taught at several art schools there.

Ronis published many books and won numerous photographic awards, but by the time a 2005 touring retrospective was being organized by Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art, a new generation needed fresh introduction to his compassionate images. At the time, a still-active Ronis told the Associated Press: “I never wanted to make people look ridiculous. I always had a lot of respect for the people I photographed.”

He died on September 12, 2009, not long after his 99th birthday.