Willy Ronis Dies Aged 99

I was saddened to learn from Jim Casper of Lensculture that Willy Ronis died today, September 12, 2009, aged 99.

I met Willy Ronis in 2003 when he came to talk about his work in London, but didn’t have time to have more than a short conversation with him. But his talk was a fine introduction to his work, which I’d only really seen in isolated images before, and made me feel that his was a much more important and vital view of everyday life in Paris than that of some better-known photographers.  And in a way I got to know him better last year on my trip to Paris in November, when I picked up a copy of his La Traversée de Belleville at the Bar Floréal and followed in his footsteps only to find that his favourite stroll in Paris covered ground that was very familiar to me from a number of earlier visits.

Of course I knew from my extended essay on him in 2003 that his work centred on Belleville and Menilmontant. For contractual reasons I can’t post that essay as I wrote it, but here is a revised version of the first of five sections.

Willy Ronis was one of a small group of photographers whose pictures gave us an image of post-war Paris in the 1950s that still dominates our imagination of that city. With Doisneau, Izis, Cartier-Bresson, Boubat and others his work created a vision of this city that was very much an image of its people. His particular viewpoint was dominated by ordinary working class men and women and life outside the bright lights and the grand boulevards. Ronis photographed ordinary daily life and found in it the extraordinary.

Paris is a hilly city, with many sets of steps joining streets providing short cuts for pedestrians. In 1949 he stood looking down one of these leading to and across Avenue Simon Bolivar. As he stood there considering the view, behind him he heard the sound of a woman talking to a child, and waited for her to fill the empty space below on the steps in his view. As she came to the main road, a heavy cart pulled by a large white horse came across, as on the other side of the road a workman was climbing a ladder. Two women pushed prams carefully spaced on the opposite side of the street, and in front of one of the small shops to the right, a cobbler in a white apron stands talking to a customer. This is any day in working –class Paris at the time, ordinary people, ordinary lives, but also a magical image, arranged perfectly both in the frame of Ronis’s camera and the shapes of the steps and the street.

Ronis called Bruegel his master of composition, and this picture, perhaps more than any other, shows his debt that great painter, one of many Dutch masters of the the 16th and 17th centuries who Ronis admired in the Louvre on his day off – Sunday – when admission to the museums was free.

The scene he captured in the fleeting fraction of a second of this image has a wonderful precision but is also a miraculous creation of chance. Henri Cartier-Bresson, lauded as the master of ‘the decisive moment’, seldom achieved anything with the grace and complexity of this image. Ronis talked about his being always open to failure, photographing on the thread of chance, and this picture shows how he was open to experience and ready at the instant to attempt to snap up the opportunities it offers.

Like  Cartier-Bresson, many of his moments are the result of anticipation, of identifying a possibly fruitful situation and waiting for events to develop – or not.  Sitting waiting in a café, looking out through a window waiting for someone to come into the frame of street in its bottom right, or standing on the street at the crossing of Rue Sèvres and Rue Babylone in Paris in 1959, the sun setting in a misty distance, a shop awning creating a dramatic silhouette pointing to the street crossing beyond. Ronis waited until a sole figure was making her last-minute dash across the road, a woman in a long coat, and caught her motion just where the sinister shape above her in the picture seems to be pointing.

This sense of a moment caught in motion, a dynamic that enlivens them is common to many of Ronis’s pictures. They have a sense of life caught on the hoof that is not found in the more choreographed images of photographers such as Brassai or Brandt. He worked with similar equipment – the 120 format Rolleiflex he bought by instalments in 1937 – and worked largely on the streets with available light, observing and captureing the life he saw. In contrast, Brassai needed to set up his shots – ‘mise en scène‘ or staging of the action – working as a director as well as a photographer so that he could make use of unsynchronised flash.

I hope to publish a revised version of the rest of this essay at a later date.  One site with a nice collection of 14 of his images – including those mentioned above –  is AfterImage.

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