When describing photojournalism, the words “joyful” and “lovely” don’t often come to mind. Most photojournalistic fare depicts human suffering, and the images are often more provocative than they are beautiful. Even the more poetic works of photojournalism are often tinged with tragedy, strengthening the notion that seriousness makes an image more real.
Today’s photographer, Willy Ronis, is a photojournalist who spent his entire career disproving that notion, or at least proffering a different perspective by depicting the brighter side of life. Ronis himself said, “You will not find one single nasty image in my work.”
But it is perhaps because of his lighthearted subject matter that he did not enjoy the same kind of fame or status as his contemporaries, the Parisian masters Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. Nevertheless, Ronis’ work deserves the same reverence and study as the best of his peers.
Menilmontant (Devant chez Mestre)
Menilmontant (Devant chez Mestre) is the work that introduced me to Willy Ronis. Like many, I mistook this image for being a masterpiece by either Doisneau or Cartier-Bresson, but I was pleased to find a lesser-known name with an equal caliber of talent.
Menilmontant contains a great many of Ronis’ signature touches. It’s a classic image of a couple standing on a Parisian street at night, backlit by a shop window. Through its usage of sharply defined, blackened silhouettes, the image looks more like a piece of mid-century European graphic design than a photo. The silhouettes also give it a mysterious air, but one that’s more inviting and romantic than it is menacing and forbidden.
The Little Parisian
If Ronis’ style is one built on joy and playfulness, there might be no better example of it than his 1952 image, “The Little Parisian”. It’s a classic, almost cliched photo of a little French boy running through the streets of Paris with a baguette in hand. The only way this photo could be more stereotypically French is if the kid was carrying a wine bottle instead (which, incidentally, was done by Ronis’ friend Henri Cartier-Bresson only two years later).
The Little Parisian is a very simple photo, but one filled with intention. A slight pan of the camera combined with slower shutter speed gives a sense of motion in the image, as seen by the slightly blurred out background and the blur of the little Parisian’s feet leaving the ground. It’s not technically difficult, but this slight touch gives the image life and energy. And when combined with the kid’s huge smile and hilariously self-aware application of a French stereotype, we get a simply pleasing, joyful photo.
Amoreux de la Bastille (The Lovers of the Bastille)
The only thing more stereotypically Parisian than running through the streets with a baguette is falling in love, in Paris. Despite knowing this, Ronis went ahead and made many images depicting these clichés including this one, Amoreux de la Bastille. But why would an artist knowingly indulge in a cliche? Ronis answers, “Photographing couples on the banks of the Seine in spring — what a cliché! But why deprive yourself of the pleasure?”
This brings up a very important point about Ronis’ artistic philosophy. To Ronis, the usage of a cliché didn’t matter as long as the photo remained impactful and beautiful. And in Amoreux de la Bastille, the image isn’t ruined by the stereotype. This image of a couple sharing a moment while looking out at mid-century Paris from the Bastille is still beautiful, still awe-inspiring. Ronis is right; why should we deprive ourselves of that?
Kinder in Belleville
Ronis’ technical brilliance is often overlooked in favor of the simple beauty of his subject matter, but Kinder in Belleville proves he had incredible technical skill. This images fuses Ronis’ signature charm with a masterclass in using leading lines and sub-framing to make a strong compositional narrative.
At the top of the image lies a normal Parisian street which leads into a set of stairs that lead the eye into the midsection of the images. The stairs lead the eye off of the edge of the frame, which may seem odd at first until the eye is drawn elsewhere to the bottom right corner. In that corner are a group of young boys appearing to venture off into the Paris sewer system. The boys’ placement in the bottom corner of the image, their claustrophobic sub-framing by the stairs, and their sharp contrast from the quiet surface street at the top of the image all combine to make a compelling image filled with mystery and genuine adventure.
Wine Grower of Gironde
I’ll end this with an image that I think epitomizes Ronis’ body of work, Wine Grower of Gironde. Simple images like this aren’t often used as evidence that a photographer was great, but I’ll include it because I think it showcases Ronis’ signature humanism more than any other.
What strikes me about Wine Grower of Gironde is the sheer amount of joy expressed through every person in this picture. They all look genuinely thrilled to be there and to have their picture taken, even going as far as smiling into the camera and at Ronis himself. The wine grower himself looks fresh out of the vineyard with dirt on his shirt and underneath his fingernails, but he and his friends look happy that they can feast quite literally on the fruits of the wine grower’s labor.
The photo’s relative simplicity also helps drive home one of the constant themes of Ronis’ work – simple pleasures and the French joie de vivre. Ronis constantly reminds us that images don’t always have to be technically brilliant, thematically dense, or emotionally complex to be great – sometimes they just need to make us smile.