40 Years of Capturing Paris

Willy Ronis allows us to enjoy a genuine moment of love. The iconic French photographer has documented spontaneous moments of daily life in Paris for over 40 years, capturing pictures that transcend the mundane and celebrate Paris’s legendary status as the city of eternal romance, the City of Love. Such is the case that, if we’re ever tempted to ask the age-old question, can love save the world while in the presence of Ronis’s photography, we may be inspired to answer confidently by saying, yes, of course, it can.

French Humanism

Willy Ronis’s body of work, along with the work of legendary photographers and contemporaries such as Robert Doisneau, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, contributed to the movement of French Humanism. This was an artistic movement that reacted to the horrors of the Second World War by capturing individuals’ spontaneous shared moments throughout Paris in a beautiful, poetic way, thus offering scenes of peaceful simplicity that provided a glimmer of hope through the true wonder of human connection.

“…Surrealists could find support for the idea that Paris was a “dream capital,” an “urban labyrinth of memory and desire.” – Willy Ronis: Photographs 1926-1995, Peter Hamilton

Profoundly Human and Eternally Charming

This promising approach towards humanity was organic to Paris, as a city steeped in romance. Paris became a safe haven for individuals who best expressed their emotions through music, art, and architecture, thereby enriching the city with a celebration of culture. With his evocative spirit, Willy Ronis’s photographs seem to exist in a dream-like state, conjuring through his eyes a Paris that was profoundly human and eternally charming.

“Indeed, Willy Rony’s art is a response to his great need to communicate his feelings, to conjure up sentiments of love and companionship through the composition of his images.” – Willy Ronis: Photographs 1926-1995, Peter Hamilton.

The Early Years

Born in 1910, Willy Ronis was raised in a culturally nurturing family. Growing up in a middle-class family in the heart of the Cité Condorcet, his parents immigrated to France from Eastern Europe. In Paris, his father set up a photography studio in Montmartre, and his mother taught piano lessons, music becoming an early influence and first passion for Ronis. In the 1930s, Willy Ronis would take over his father’s photography studio. After battling cancer and being ill, Ronis’s father was unable to operate the family business alone. While working at his family’s photography studio and after viewing the work of photographers from the Nouvelle Vision of the 1930s, Ronis began to explore the use of photography outside of his studio’s commercial needs, moving towards journalism and his personal excursions. After his father’s passing, Ronis sold the studio in 1936 and began working as a freelance photographer.

The Photojournalist

At the end of the 1930s, Ronis started his lifelong work in journalism, eventually joining the Rapho agency and working alongside Parisian legends like Brassaï. In 1955, Edward Steichen included Ronis in the seminal Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, cementing his importance as a significant photographer of the 20th century.

Willy Ronis Les Amoreux de la Bastille
Willy Ronis, Les Amoreux de la Bastille (The Lovers of the Bastille), 1957, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Les Amoureux de la Bastille

In 1957, Willy Ronis captured one of his most iconic photographs depicting two engaged lovers with Paris’s cityscape in the background. The picture titled Les Amoureux de la Bastille not only captures a tender moment shared between two lovers but also the great symbols of French architecture, the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame cathedral. Willy Ronis’s lovers overlooking the city on a balcony almost perfectly embody the idea of Paris as a city for lovers, capturing the sentiment of the city with a similar vivid strength like a poem by Baudelaire.

“I can recall those happy days forgot,

And see, with head bowed on your knees, my past.

Your languid beauties now would move me not

Did not your gentle heart and body cast

The old spell of those happy days forgot.”

– The Balcony, Charles Baudelaire

Preserving a Moment

In Les Amoureux de la Bastille, we can sense the humility, kindness, and tenderness of the moment. In a world where everyone seems to be a photographer, it is hard to capture these moments with a freshness and unforced ease. It may be why Ronis made the choice to place the lovers to the side of the frame and make the picture as much about what the lovers are looking at as it is about them. Willy Ronis helps us preserve this moment of lovers’ connection through a non-conventional composition. Ultimately, it is an intimate picture that asserts itself both gently and powerfully – finding a perfect visual and emotional balance.