Jean-Philippe Charbonnier was born on August 28, 1921 to a highly artistic family. His father was a painter, his mother, a writer. Charbonnier first discovered photography in 1939 in the studio of the famous movie portraitist Sam Levin. He trained in the studios of White and Demilly, but World War II brought an abrupt halt to his emerging photography career, as he went to spend two years in Switzerland during the war.
At the end of 1944, he came back to France and worked as a typesetter with the Liberation newspaper and France-Sunday. The same year he finished his first feature story in Vienne, France on the public execution of a Nazi traitor and documented the entire story in pictures.
In 1950, Charbonnier went to work for Realities as a photojournalist, where he collaborated with Edouard Boubat, who was also on staff. The position provided Charbonnier with the opportunity to travel to remote areas of the world, and to reveal through his photographs, the great state of change and upheaval in these regions. In 1970, he helped inaugurate the first Rencontres d’Arles, an important photo exposition in Arles, France. Charbonnier decided to leave Realites in July 1974, disillusioned with “standardization” he felt had come to dominate the world of photography.
His meeting with Agathe Gaillard marked a turning point in his career. Up until that point, he was more invested in a personal photograph. Now, released of the anguish of ordered work, he began to explore his nearby surroundings in Paris ñ capturing scenes from the neighborhood of Notre Dame with subjects that defined the Parisian allure. In regards to these images, he said, “I photographed all these people, not always without cruelty, certainly, but with an impassioned interest, with a lucid tenderness.” Many of these photographs were eventually exhibited at the Gallery Agathe Gaillard, as well as the Museum of the Elysium of Lausanne and the Niepce Museum of the Trawl-net-on-Saone.
In 1983, the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris put on a major retrospective of Charbonnier’s work.
Charbonnier died on May 28, 2004 in Grasse.. His life-long friend Michel Kempf wrote regarding the legacy of Charbonnier’s work, “In a life of world tours, meeting with an entire generation of celebrities and meeting with just as many others torn from their anonymity in the 60th of a second that an exposure lasts, Jean-Philippe Charbonnier not just took his picture, he also told thousands upon thousands of stories.”