The Photographer Who Saw Paris With His Heart in His Eyes



He famously stopped working for New York Magazine, however, after it published a sneering caption with a photo he had taken of a trade unionist. “Ronis was incensed,” Mr. Uféras said. “As a result, he started choosing very carefully who he worked for, in order to retain total artistic control.”

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In many ways, the exhibition at the Carré de Baudouin, called “Willy Ronis by Willy Ronisand running through Sept. 29, was curated by the photographer himself. “Twenty years before he died, when he decided to bequeath all his works to the French state, Willy started going through every single one of the 26,000 or so pictures he took since the early ’30s, and chose 590 of them as his visual testament,” Jean-Claude Gautrand, another close friend of Ronis, explained in an interview. “He neatly placed them in six albums, with a comment for each image.”


“Chez Max,” 1947, at an outdoor ball in Joinville-le-Pont outside Paris.

Willy Ronis/Ministère de la Culture — Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, dist. RMN-GP

Mr. Gautrand and Mr. Uféras are the official curators of the show, but they insist they were only middlemen. “We had to select 200 out of the 590 images from Ronis’s albums, as it would have been exhausting for visitors to go through so many pictures,” Mr. Uféras said, adding that all of the photos in the albums were digitized and can be viewed on tablets at the exhibition.

Walking through the rooms of the Carré de Baudouin, in a grand 18th-century building acquired by the city to host free cultural events, it is difficult not to be struck by the simplicity and joy of Ronis’s black-and-white pictures. Many of them are so famous they are now part of Paris’s DNA.

In one, a little boy runs, smiling, with a seemingly enormous baguette under his arm (“The Little Parisian,” 1952); in another, two lovers stand at the top of the July Column with Paris at their feet, the man whispering into the woman’s ear (“The Lovers of the Bastille,” 1957).

Lovers appear in many of Ronis’s pictures — and he knew what others would say about that. “ ‘Photographing couples on the banks of the Seine in spring — what a cliché!’ But why deprive yourself of the pleasure?” Ronis wrote in his photo album. “Every time I encounter lovers, my camera smiles; let it do its job.”


“The Barge Children,” 1959.

Willy Ronis/Ministère de la Culture — Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, dist. RMN-GP

And then there are the gigantic barges on the Seine, with two small children playing in them, hidden from all but for the photographer on the bridge above (“The Barge Children,” 1959). Ronis wrote that this was the photograph that “made me understand, above and beyond my everyday work, the true meaning of what I was striving for” — to reveal the innocence and joy of simple pleasures.


“Rose Zehner, a Union Representative During the Citroën-Javel Strike,” 1938.

Willy Ronis/Ministère de la Culture — Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, dist. RMN-GP

Given that he was a man of the left, it is surprising there are no photos of the student-led uprisings of May 1968, which are being remembered in this 50th-anniversary year. It is a strange and revealing detail for a photographer who, in addition to recording people at work and play in the streets, had often documented other protests and strikes.

“Since he was a communist, and the Communist Party opposed both the strikes and the students’ revolt,” Mr. Gautrand said, “he probably disapproved of it,”

“I discussed the topic, however, with Robert Doisneau,” he continued. “He, too, refused to take pictures of the events: He was adamant that the students were bourgeois, fooling around, and wanted nothing of it.”

When Ronis had nothing nice to say, he said nothing at all. “You will not find one single nasty image in my work,” he told a journalist of the French newspaper Le Monde in 2005. “I have never wanted to show people in a ridiculous way.”

Compassion and empathy are probably the best ways to describe his attitude toward the many people who caught his eye throughout the 20th century. As the surrealist poet Philippe Soupault wrote, “Willy Ronis has his heart in his eyes.”

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