EXHIBITIONS: Cameraman of the people

If Cartier-Bresson is the aristocrat of French photography, Willi Ronis is its working-class poet. A new show celebrates his art

Tim Hilton
Saturday 22 July 1995 23:02

EVERYONE remembers certain photographs by Willi Ronis - his post- war shots of clubs in St-Germain-des-Pres, or the beautiful Nue Provencale - but he's not an artist of wide renown. I hope that his first retrospective, carefully and even reverently mounted by the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, will make him famous. Certainly the show will bring Ronis many friends. One can long savour the qualities of his art. He's an aesthete of photo- reportage. Like all the best photographers, Ronis is a man of the people. Yet he surveys life in a subtle, quizzical way, suggesting more things than he declares, and with fastidious attention to the fall of light and to that kind of precision within images that belongs to camera-work alone.

Artistically, he's allied with the documentary styles of the Forties and early Fifties. Socially, his great subject is France. Ronis was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Paris in 1910. It was a musical family, and Willy's father was a portrait photographer. Ronis feels that his foreign background gave a little extra edge to his observations of the city in which he was raised. He adds that he found an ideal retreat in music, long after he decided not to become a composer. It is of course true that you can look at the bustling world, and contribute to it, while no one knows what serene sounds might be in your head. And, since he was brought up to help in his father's studio, Ronis was a highly professional technician from an early age.

All these matters are explained by Peter Hamilton in a fine book (Moma, pounds 14.95). Hamilton is unusual among photographic historians in that he is, in academic life, a social scientist. The bent of his mind is towards the analysis of work, class and the effect of public events on individual lives. And I guess that he loves Paris. These are the right qualifications for studying Ronis. Evidently their conversations have been fruitful. Hamilton uses the photo- grapher's own words to explain his reactions to modernist art-photography of the Twenties, relations with other immigrant photographers in Paris (who included Kertesz, Brassai and Capa), his growing communist convictions and above all the formation of the "nouvelle vision" style.

This style depended on a small camera (for Ronis, a 6 x 6cm Rolleiflex bought from a German refugee), a wandering Parisian itinerary, fast reactions and the feeling that everything might be recorded from the peculiar or hidden sides of modern life. There was humour in it. Surrealism could have been a slight influence. The press was more important. Ronis aimed his pictures for magazine publication and knew that they would not be successful as photography if they did not please a picture editor. Such editors worked for left-wing or, after the Liberation, communist magazines.

Ronis was underground during the Occupation. After 1945, when he joined the Parti Communiste Francais, his photography was more varied and telling then it had been in the Thirties. Some images from those days of the Popular Front seem stiffer than those of a later date. They are none the less moving. But Ronis's best photography could not have been created without the forces that made the post-war PCF. As we know, French communism was bad for the visual arts of painting and sculpture. Their modernism could not fit the party's programmes. On the other hand PCF and its front organisations helped photography a lot. Of course: the party bosses knew that photography was popular, as fine art was not.

Now a personal note. I was a communist child and was taken to France every year after 1947 to stay with PCF comrades. The nastier of them were the intellectuals and people who had come back from German camps with no particular job or future. I still hold to their ideals. They didn't read a word of Marxism. They felt no particular enmity for the bougeoisie. They simply believed in freedom, very long lunches, street life, ooh-la-la about l'amour, decent wages, the brotherhood of man and the importance of the Tour de France.

French communism of this sort was a widespread popular movement, especially among the Parisian working class. Ronis was its poet. Nowadays the tendency is to associate him with Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. People call their work "humanist photography". That's OK, but for Ronis we should add the words "popular" and, why not, "proletarian". Superb though they are, there is something too aristocratic about Cartier-Bresson's photographs. Doisneau (he joined the PCF in 1945) is closer to Ronis, and was of course a terrific street-photographer. Yet he was not as aesthetic as Ronis and also lacked his cleverness.

Like a good communist, Ronis concealed or did not emphasise how clever he was. Look for longer at the prints and intelligence becomes apparent. I suspect that he was influenced by the tradition of French caricature, a demotic art maintained by clever men. A little more overt is his love of painting. Hamilton records that Ronis thought often of Brueghel when developing his crowd scenes. Perhaps we see this in the 1936 photo (below, left) of a Popular Front march. Dutch painting appears to have been more important to Ronis than that of any other school. For two reasons, I think. Old Dutch art, unlike French art, was not aristocratic and produced no classicism. And painting from the Low Countries was supremely concerned with light.

We can always identify the vulgarians of photography by their lighting. Ronis, by contrast, has a repertoire of illumination that is faultless in its tone and taste. I cannot imagine a colour print by Ronis, so fully does he give himself to the exercises of photographic grisaille. This perfectionism was maintained while working to magazine deadlines and always communicating social detail. I adore the photo of the French Pub in Soho, made as part of a feature on French expatriates in London. Look, there's the young Gaston Berlemont by the window. He's 81 now. Who's that lovely barmaid? She was before my time. And what about the streaming and dancing sunshine in this photograph? There's never been a better song about opening time in spring.

! Moma, Oxford (01865 722733) to 1 Oct.

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