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Willy Ronis: Photographer celebrated for his documentary and reportage work of the mid-20th century

One afternoon in 1949 in the South of France, Willy Ronis came upon his wife Marie-Anne washing. She stood on a stone flagged floor, her shoulders illuminated by the strong Provencal sun. "I said to her, 'stay like that' and taking the camera from the chest of drawers, went three steps up the staircase and shot three frames." In that instant, Ronis made a portrait which has become emblematic of the romantic and wistful hedonism of post-war French photography. The innocent sensuality of a woman's body, set against the roughness of floors and walls, the intricate tracery of leaves and branches seen through an open window, all present, a tableau of a momentary paradise.

Photography had always played an important role in Ronis's life. His father owned a photographic studio in Paris, and after serving as a meteorologist in the French Air Force the 22-year-old Ronis joined the family business. But studio portraiture, with its posing and artifice, soon lost its appeal; by the mid-1930s, his growing fascination with photographing the street life of Paris had propelled him towards an intense and politically committed photodocumentary. As-signments came from picture magazines, in particular from the leftist journal Regards.

He photographed in factories and on the streets, producing harsh critical documents in which there was no space for romanticism. By the end of the 1930s, Ronis had mounted two one-man shows, "Neige dans les Vosges" and "Paris la Nuit". Stimulation came from new friends like the emigre photojournalists Chim Seymour and Robert Capa, as Paris became the centre for European photojournalism.

The outbreak of the Second World War changed everything for Ronis. In 1941, the Germans occupied Paris, and, along with many other Jewish and leftist photographers, he escaped from the capital. Deprived of any opportunities to sell his work, and anxious to escape the attentions of the Nazis, he abandoned photojournalism for the duration and worked in theatre companies and design studios in the South of France.

Ronis returned to Paris soon after the Liberation and joined the Rapho agency – other members included Brassai and Robert Doisneau. Commissions were plentiful, as the French public looked to photographers to picture a resurgence of confidence and national identity and perhaps also to obscure, through the optimism of humanist reportage, the highly ambivalent nature of wartime French reactions to the invading Germans. Through the eyes of Ronis, Doisneau, Cartier Bresson and others, France became more French than ever before.

It was in the inner city quartier of Belleville-Menilmontant that Ronis found the quintessential and traditional Paris that so inspired him. The Belleville project offered Ronis a myriad of photographic opportunities, and reasserted, after years of exile, his own sense of belonging, his love of cities and their peculiar serendipity, and his fascination with reportage. Though the hard edge of his '30s documentary was gone, his sense of form and structure had strengthened, giving him a new stylistic virtuosity.

The early 1950s were years of achievement for Ronis. Interest came from the United States, and his 1951 group show, "Four French Photographers" with Brassai, Doisneau and Izis at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was a huge success. In 1955 he showed work in the "Family of Man" exhibition and in 1957 was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Biennale. Belleville-Menilmontant was published as a book (with text by Pierre MacOrlan) in 1954. Decades later its power and commitment are as evident as ever.

But by the late '50s, humanistic photoreportage became unfashionable and assignments grew infrequent and less rewarding. Ronis left Rapho and found the life of an independent photographer difficult and disappointing. Years later he recollected: "One day my work was wanted by everybody, the next I had to tell people who I was." Throughout the '60s, Ronis survived as a photographer by taking on advertising and fashion commissions, but always went back to the city streets to follow his own photographic inclinations. In 1972 he returned to Provence with Marie-Anne, taught photography in local colleges and was largely forgotten by the outside world.

Fortunately for Willy Ronis, a whole generation of younger French photographers and curators, anxious to explore their own cultural history, became active in the early 1970s. Photography festivals, notably the Rencontres at Arles, began to flourish; to the delight of a new and enthusiastic public, Ronis's work was rediscovered. He rejoined Rapho and began again to publish and exhibit. Displaced in the 1960s, Ronis became a hero to the emerging French documentarists of the '70s.

In his introductory statement to his 1980 photo-book Sur le Fil du Hasard (awarded the Prix Nadar in 1981) he reflected perfectly the post-humanistic consciousness of the late '70s: "When I go out with my camera I do not go in search of the Holy Grail. I do not feel invested with any message for anyone, nor do I perceive any transcendental vibration. I put in order and combine information, which my head and my heart, in their fashion, immediately modify... I have no need to lift my eyes to the heavens for some sign, nor do I feel the emergence of any kind of spiritual approach; my eyes are occupied by scanning my surroundings as well as the image captured in the viewfinder."

Willy Ronis never enjoyed exile, and in 1983 he returned to Paris, no longer the journeyman photographer but an honoured master of his medium. Like his contemporary Robert Doisneau, Ronis had found a new and youthful audience for his work and prints from his 1950s archives became enormously popular. The snatched image of Marie-Anne washing in the Provençal kitchen in 1949 has emerged as one of the most celebrated (and much published) photographs of recent times.

In the consumer driven, politically insecure '80s, Ronis's vignettes of past times provided a reassuring coda of innocence. Looking at small incidents and ordinary people through his concerned and respectful eyes, we suspend our disbelief and enter into a nirvana of nostalgic desire.

Val Williams

Willy Ronis, photographer: born Paris 14 August 1910; married 1946 Marie-Anne Lansiaux; died 12 September 2009.