Willy Ronis: “Emperor of the Banal”

Willy Ronis, Self-portrait with flash, 1951.

The moniker “Emperor of the Banal” is not one with which photographer Willy Ronis would have taken offense. It was given to him by friends and colleagues, who also called him the “Poet of the Quotidian.” During a career covering more than seven decades, this Parisian born artist (1910) captured the small incidents in the lives, work, and loves of the often-anonymous working people of Paris. He sometimes photographed the highborn, the politicians, and the artists, but he is best remembered for, and loved by, the citizens of the “City of Light,” whose rituals of daily lived life are his enduring testament.

Paris has embraced a long line of twentieth century photographers who have captured its poetry, surrealist mystery, lower depths, and high fashion. Brassaï, Kertèsz and Man Ray are some of the foreigners who have used Paris as the template for their artistic vision. Édouard Boubat and Robert Doisneau are Parisian artists who have prowled its streets, parks and cafes creating iconic images of workers, children, families, and lovers that are known throughout the world. Willy Ronis’ name may not elicit an immediate snap of recognition to many, but a slideshow of his images will bring you up short with a sense of déjà vu. It will leave with you a lingering memory of a Paris that once was and always will be. Here is a thirty-two photo video introduction to his work. While I often bristle at the music accompanying these YouTube videos, the use of the great Charles Aznavour/Jacques Plante song “La Bohème” limns the passion and energy caught in the fleeting moments of life and love caught in his photographs:

The first photo in this video is a nude, not a genre for which he is best known. But it is this photograph of his new wife, Marie-Anne Lansiaux, taken while on vacation in Provence in 1949 that is a poster of the current retrospective of Ronis’ work in Paris, on exhibition through August at the Mint, the Monnaie de Paris. This seemingly unlikely venue along the left bank quay, a stone’s throw from the Musee d’Orsay, was jammed tight with Parisian families, not tourists, on the torrid July afternoon I was there. More than any other French photographer Ronis captures the hearts of Parisians; such exhibitions of his work, especially in his final years, were common.

Exhibition at the Mairie de Paris, 2006.

The retrospective at the Monnaie was meant to be a centennial celebration, but Willy Ronis passed away at age 99 last year on September 12. He claimed that he had made more than 90,000 photographs in more than 70 years. Unlike many late 20th century photographers with their motor drives, or even like Garry Winogrand with his one handed, frenetic shutter legerdemain, Ronis explains how few exposures he normally took at any one place. A book of his photos with a rich commentary (unfortunately not yet translated into English), Ce Jour-La is a guide through the working process of this artist of the “discovered moment.”

www.abebooks.com—Ce Jour-La link

Unlike his friend Cartier-Bresson whose “decisive moment” became a catchword for a dominant style of street photography, Ronis became one with the people he photographed, not merely an artful recordist of their ritual and habits, and many of his images have an intimacy that seem to be snapshots taken by a friend or colleague, rather than those of an aesthete flaneur.

Ronis’ father was a studio photographer who had a simple business near the Place des Nations. Young Willy worked in his studio doing printing and retouching of the formal, posed portraits of the neighborhood’s working class families. The young boy did not take well to this sterile work; he wanted to be a composer of classical music; he also showed an early talent in drawing and like many art students spent days in the Louvre studying Old Masters and Classical Greek sculpture.

His father suffered a years long debilitating illness and died of cancer in 1936.

I lived in depression for those four long years and my daily life was a lie; I hated the kind of photography my father was doing. I had a very deep love for my father, who was dying.

The family may have been opposed to Willy’s desired career as a composer, but his mother did guide him toward the violin, convinced he could make a living at least as a café performer. The young man did subsequently play popular music of the day in restaurants.

A young Willy Ronis with his violin.

Ronis was a serious student of the violin, but at age 15 his father gave him a camera, a Kodak 6.5 x 11, and Willy began to make photos in the streets (he eventually put down the violin for good at age 22). Writer Kathleen Grosset, daughter of the founder of the French photo agency Rapho, says that Ronis “photographs the happiness of simple people, the small moments of joy, despite the difficulties of life.” And it is this quotidian work for which he is best known. But when he began to photograph, Ronis’ images, often for the magazine”Regard,” were mainly documents of social and worker unrest, demonstrations and strikes that reflected the rise of the leftist “Popular Front” during the turbulent 30s. His first published photo was of a street demonstration that was taken on July 14, Bastille Day, 1936.

14, July, 1936 Ronis' first published photo "Regard."

Two years later Ronis covered a major strike at the Citröen Jovel plant.

Strike at Citroen Jovel, 1938.

The young girl on the street in the Phrygian hat sitting on her daddy’s shoulders on Bastille Day, and the photo of the woman worker, Rose Zellner, left arm pointed for emphasis as she exhorts other women strikers—became two of the many people in his photographs who contacted him years later and with whom he became friends. In 1988, Zellner, then 80 years old, wrote an open letter to the Communist newspaper L’Humanite in search of Ronis. He and Zellner met 44 years after the photo was made. Ronis says that he wept at their meeting, moved by her still vibrant life force and the way time seemed to collapse around them. But the most notable example of these “reunions” is that of the two lovers atop the July Column at the Place Bastille, an image that has defined the city of love itself:

Lovers at the Bastille Column, 1957.

The lovers are Riton and Marinette. They married shortly after the photo was made and opened a bar-tabac almost in the shadow of the column. Ronis met them only years after he had made the photo. The couple had put up a poster of the Ronis photograph (by then one of his most famous images) on the wall of their café. Ronis heard about it, found them, and the three became good friends. Ronis would often “casse-croûte,” break bread, at their cafe. A measure of how pervasive Ronis’ photos are in French culture is the fact that he cites that twenty-eight such meetings took place over the years, between him and his subjects. One final example of how Ronis’ art came face to face with his own life comes from this next photo, another of his most famous.

Chez Maxe, Joinville, 1947.

In 2003, Ronis received a letter from one of the women dancers, the one on the right. She had seen this photograph reproduced often in books and magazines. The other woman dancer is a childhood friend of hers. The confident young man partnering them both was someone, she says, who danced with them only once. She never saw him again. In his book Ce Jour-La Ronis talks about how he came upon and made many of his key images. Here, he says, he first was attracted to the seated couple but got caught up in the energy of the dancers. He moved around and found a higher bench to stand on, placed the seated couple in the foreground and made this photo, a study of contrasts, of stasis and dynamism. He talks further about how often he would seek out a higher perspective for many of his photos so that he could capture depth, multiple levels of activity without foreground blocking. This deep space is, in fact, something one sees in many of his photos especially in those of his beloved working class areas of Belleville and Ménilmontant. These hilly neighborhoods offered Ronis unique camera positions to depict the workers who were intent on their daily rounds. Such vantage points were simply not available on the flat streets closer to the Seine or along the broad avenues created in the 1860s by city planner Baron Haussmann.

Ave. Simon Bolivar, 1950.

Glazier, Menilmontant, 1948.

Ronis was not interested merely in the abstraction afforded by the higher angles, perspectives that we associate with experiments of many of his contemporaries, especially those of the Bauhaus School. He was intent simply on seeing everything that he could in the human environment. These steep, cobbled streets were not so much picturesque backgrounds as essential lived-in space. This sense of people in their daily environment is a quality you see in most of his work, a telling contrast to the close-in, isolated portraiture of many French photographers of his era. The streets, parks and alleys of Ronis’ images are almost sentient. Ronis once spoke of how his photography and his selection of spatial planes had a correspondence to his youthful, even lifelong love of classical music—in one of the rare flights of verbal abstraction he indulged in:

“the taste I have for composition, particularly counterpoint. 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.”

Yes, there are some singularly famous close portraits and intimate work places in Ronis’ work, such as this one of two young women workers at a French fry shop, taken shortly after the end of the war.

Frites sellers, 1946.

This kind of closely posed portrait acknowledging Ronis’ presence is an anomaly. His subjects most often are living their lives with a focused singularity that makes them oblivious of his camera.

The centennial retrospective that is still on display at the Monnaie de Paris is presented in conjunction with the Jeu de Paume, a branch of the Louvre. They have made a two-part video that offers a brief walk-through of the exhibition as well as a discussion of Ronis’ political background and his life-long commitment to workers’ social issues. He says at one point that he was allied with the Communist Party but later in life defined himself as a “fellow traveler.” It is more than difficult to imagine any American Government organization today co-hosting an exhibition of the work of such an avowed leftist artist. In both parts of the video Ronis speaks about his photos but especially toward the end of part two he tells of his work for Life and his ultimate dissatisfaction with their editorial policy. Like W. Eugene Smith who quit the magazine in 1955 over disputes regarding the editing of his photo-essays, Ronis was unhappy with the lack of control he had over his photos’ captions. He ends his comments by revealing that he never used a tripod for his work, that he always photographed “au main.” Here are the two parts:

In the mid-thirties Ronis became friends with Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and Robert Capa, three of the men who after the war were co-founders of the Magnum Photo Agency. But Ronis chose to join Rapho, which was started by a Hungarian émigré, Charles Rado, in 1936; it was forced to close during the war. When it re-opened in New York in 1946 it attracted Ronis as well as Boubat, Doisneau, Kertész, Brandt and Lartigue.

The late 40s and 50s were a golden age for Ronis and many of his most recognized images come from that time, his so-called “golden nuggets.” He did not often wander out of France. He says:

My wife was not a sailor’s wife. My marriage would have fallen apart if I had been gone for long periods of time.

Here are several of these most beloved of his photographs:

Place Vendome, 1947 (Vendome Column reflected in the puddle).

Boules, Averngne, 1947.

Carrefour (intersection), Sevres-Babylone, 1948.

Peniche (barge) with children, 1959.

Ronis’ single most famous photograph is, surprisingly, an assignment, a set-up. Except for the contracted work of photographing celebrities and artists that he made from time to time and which are included in a comprehensive Taschen monograph, his key images are “discovered” rather than “staged.”

www.amazon.com—Willy Ronis (Midi S.) link

“The Little Parisian,” a vibrant image of a young boy running down the street, a large baguette under his left arm, came about in this way. In 1952, Ronis was hired to do a photo essay called “Revoir Paris.”

The little Parisian, 1952.

The assignment was about a Parisian who had been living in New York for fifteen years and an essay on his impressions of Paris upon his return home. One thing Ronis knew that is emblematic of Paris is the Boulangerie, where every Parisian buys his daily bread. Ronis chose a typical bakery but he was not content to photograph only the façade. Upon entering, he saw a young boy standing with his grandmother, waiting their turn. He proposed to the woman that he photograph the boy out on the street, carrying the bread. She answered, “If it amuses you, why not?” in such a casual way that it took him aback. So, Ronis positioned himself down the street from the shop and called out to the boy to run past the camera. The boy made three tries and then Ronis was satisfied. Years later, a telephone call from the boy’s (now a grown man) mother-in-law led him to the very same street where he had made the photo. He knew it was the same place because the full frame of the photo negative showed a gas meter tag that even now, years later, was still there. The street is the rue Péclet. Ronis hoped to meet the boy as he had many of the subjects in his other photos, but this time the subject didn’t appear; Ronis never met the boy.

Ronis made another of his most famous photos while on vacation in Provence in 1949. It is the nude of his wife standing over an unplumbed bathroom sink. Later, when she saw a print of it back in Paris, she said simply, “pas mal.” It has become one of the century’s most beloved nudes (and almost an echo of a Bonnard painting of the artist’s wife). This simple, almost chaste, nude made it possible for Ronis to do occasional nude studies right up until 2002, when he finally put down the camera. Here is his final nude.

Nude on a daybed, 2002.

And here is the one from that long ago summer vacation.

Provencal Nude (Marie-Anne), 1949.

Forty years later, Ronis made another portrait of his beloved Marie-Anne. During the summer of 1988 he was looking out an apartment window and saw an old stone bench in the park below. He decided to photograph his wife sitting there. Although she would live another three years Marie-Anne already was showing severe sign of mental “fatigue,” the Alzheimers that soon would carry her away. Ronis decided to come back to the park with her in the autumn when the walkway and surrounding grasses would be covered with leaves, the whole setting a harbinger of death and decay. He sat her there on the weathered stone bench, went up to the apartment overlook, and took this photo.

The old lady in a park (Marie-Anne), 1988.

Even in a full page, high-resolution reproduction, it is difficult to see Marie-Anne sitting there about one-fifth from the bottom of the frame, just to the left of the light colored bush, as she blends in with the surrounding naturescape. Here is what Ronis says of this portrait.

This photo is very dear to me. I can’t speak of it any further. Marie-Anne became part of nature, of the leaves, like a small insect, in the bushes. We lived together forty-six years.

More than anything else I have read about this artist and his gentle human compassion, these words and this so delicate image haunt me. Reviewing his work, as I hope you will do, you come away not with just a renewed sense of life’s value as expressed in the myriad incidents that make up our everyday activities, but with a visceral feeling of community, that despite our individual differences, we all live much the same life, with the same mundane chores and simple pleasures filling our hours and days. With these intimate and highly individual portraits, Willy Ronis has created, in fact, a portrait of us all.

Willy Ronis at 90, 2000.

2 Responses to “Willy Ronis: “Emperor of the Banal””

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  • A wonderful tribute to Ronis, one of my favourite photographers. I love the images you chose and the videos; clearly this is one “master of the banal” who made art with his subjects. Well done!

  • This is a beautiful representation of Willy Ronis’ life, work, intent and passion. Thank you for sharing your exploration of the many facets of Willy Ronis and the impact he made and continues to make on how we look at life.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Brighid, yes, not only does Ronis give us an often unsentimental look at Parisian life, but at the daily trial, rituals and joys that frame our daily lives everywhere.

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