Willy Ronis, 99

Willy Ronis, 99; Celebrated French Photojournalist

A boy runs down the street carrying a baguette in an image of Paris street life. Mr. Ronis also spent time living and working in the South of France.
A boy runs down the street carrying a baguette in an image of Paris street life. Mr. Ronis also spent time living and working in the South of France. (Courtesy Kathleen Ewing Gallery)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Willy Ronis, 99, a French photojournalist who illuminated the romance, gaiety and mystique of Parisian and Provençal life after World War II and helped usher the medium into wider acceptance as an art form, died Sept. 12 in Paris. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Ronis's most celebrated black-and-white images aimed to express the pleasures of serendipitous moments, whether a picture of two lovers atop the Bastille monument or of a small happy boy running down the street carrying a baguette that is as long as the child is tall.

In addition to chronicling scenes of Parisian street life, Mr. Ronis also spent considerable time living and working in the South of France. In 1949, he created one of his most recognizable images. Evoking intimacy and sensuality, it showed his wife nude and leaning over a washbowl in front of an open window flooded by the strong Provençal sun.

"We had a little stone cottage at Gordes," he once said. "It was a hot summer, and I was repairing the attic. I needed a trowel, so I came down and there was Marie-Anne standing naked on the stone flags, washing herself from the tin basin. 'Don't move,' I said and, my hands full of plaster, I grabbed my Rolleiflex and took four shots. It was the second shot which I chose."

In another of his Provençal pictures, a man playing petanque a popular bowling game, is poised gracefully like a ballet dancer caught in mid-action. Another is of a man leading his horse-drawn wagon through the light and shops of an anonymous cobblestone street.

"It is my contemporaries who most interest me, ordinary people with ordinary lives," Mr. Ronis told the New York Times in 2005. "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 emotions."

Mr. Ronis was often categorized as part of the "humanist" movement of photography, and he was often compared to contemporaries and colleagues such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassa? and Robert Doisneau, all of whom he outlived.

In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Mr. Ronis "the poet of a simple and joyous life."

Willy Ronis was born Aug. 14, 1910, in Paris to immigrant Jewish parents. His father ran a photography studio, and his mother gave piano lessons.

Mr. Ronis dreamed of composing violin works, but his parents sent him to the Sorbonne to study law. When his father became ill with cancer in 1932, Mr. Ronis took control of the family business and met photographers including Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David "Chim" Seymour.

After his father died in 1936, Mr. Ronis became a photographer full time and took freelance assignments from local newspapers. His sensitivity to emotion while covering union strikes and Popular Front demonstrations won him wide admiration. Much of Mr. Ronis's early work for newspapers formed the basis of his 1951 book "Photo-Reportage: The Hunt for Images."

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Mr. Ronis fled to unoccupied territory in the south. There, he fell in love with a jewel painter, Marie-Anne Lansiaux, whom he married in 1946. They had a son, Vincent. After the war, Mr. Ronis began working for the Rapho photo agency. With his new family, he divided time between Paris's eastern neighborhoods of Belleville and Ménilmontant and the countryside of Provence, where Mr. Ronis photographed the working classes.

Mr. Ronis received broad recognition in the 1950s when he was featured in two photography exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, including Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" display. He was awarded a gold medal at the 1957 Venice Biennale.

Mr. Ronis's wistful style faded and reemerged as popular tastes changed, and in his later years, he was generally regarded as one of the masters of his art form. In 1983, he donated more than 90,000 negatives to the French state. He received the 2006 lifetime achievement honor at the Lucie Awards, an annual celebration of excellence in the art of photography.

One of Mr. Ronis's final projects was documenting his wife's struggle with Alzheimer's disease before her death in 1991. Their son died in an accident in 1988, Great Britain's Guardian newspaper reported. He is survived by a grandson, according to the Guardian.

At 85, Mr. Ronis went skydiving and took a self-portrait of his gleeful expression. On another occasion well into his senior years, he was so inspired by a young female radio reporter that he asked her to pose nude for him in the middle of an interview. She did.

"I never took a mean photo," Mr. Ronis 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."

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