A quick Google search took me to the Hackle Bury Gallery, which opened up a wealth of images that literally took my breath away. I was surprised to find that some of the images that I saw were familiar to me, though I had not known that they were Ronis' work. It soon became obvious that Ronis definitely stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants of 20th Century French photography.
In the language of the modern genres, Ronis might be described as a “street photographer”, but without the brash voyeuristic tone that many such photographers tend to take. Ronis' lens never seems to intrude on a scene; instead, it is a welcome guest in the homes and at the tables of its subjects. What is immediately clear upon viewing a Willy Ronis photograph is his immense affection for his subjects. Ronis loved Paris, its streets, cafes and skyline, its hearty men, winsome women and adventurous children.
In the days following my introduction to the work of Willy Ronis, I busily searched out every Ronis image and reference I could find. My wife, my children, my friends and students all received a crash course in contemporary French photography.
Ronis, born in 1910, was the son of a portrait photographer recently emigrated from Odessa, and like American Ansel Adams, his initial training was as a musician. By default, he entered into the family business, and began a steady ascension among the photographers of pre-, mid-, and post-war France.
Ronis displayed an instinct for capturing what Cartier-Bresson famously called the “decisive moment”. His photographs capture not only the momentum and mood of a scene, they capture its very soul. You do not view a Ronis photograph, you live it. You breathe its air; you feel the sun on your face and the rain on your back. You share the hopes, fears and dreams of his subjects, you remember their memories, feel your heart burst at their joys and sorrows.
Of the lessons which have shaped my own photographic education, I count September of 2009 and my experience of the unique vision of Willy Ronis as one of my most profound influences.