Think of post-war Paris and chances are that this is one of the images that spring to mind. The little boy with the baguette was one of the immortal shots by Willy Ronis, who died yesterday at the age of 99.
Ronis was the last of the band of photographers, known as the humanist school, who snapped everyday Parisian life in the two decades after 1945, usually in black and white and in the poorer quarters. The period now seems like a golden age. The work of Ronis and his friends Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai became poster clichés in the 1980s but they were recognised as masters earlier than most realise. As early as 1953, the Museum of Modern Art in New York honored them with an exhibition. They influenced all photographers of the era. I remember my father, a keen amateur photographer, taking slice-of-life pictures in the style of Cartier-Bresson and Ronis in the north of Scotland.
Ronis, the son of Jewish immigrants from east Europe, began as a photographer in the late 1930s using an old Rolleiflex. He was very ill in his final years but remained lucid to the end. In July he drew a big crowd when he appeared at the annual photographic exhibition in Arles.
Ronis, like his colleagues and all self-respecting thinkers in the post-war years, was a leftist. He mainly chronicled the lives of the labouring classes. He was by all accounts an extraordinarily gentle man. “I never took a mean photo,” he said when he was given a Paris show in 2005. “I never wanted to make people look ridiculous. I always had a lot of respect for the people I photographed.” In Arles, this summer, he said he had always felt empathy with his subjects. “I met very few bastards.”
President Sarkozy paid tribute to Ronis as the “chronicler of postwar social aspirations and the poet of a simple and joyous life.” Frédéric Mitterrand, the Culture Minister, said Ronis immortalized “for each of us the poetry of our daily lives and saved it from lost time.”
The work of some of the humanists has been slightly discredited in recent years with the discovery that they posed some of their seemingly spontaneous snaps of street life. Robert Doisneau admitted late in life that he used paid drama students to stage the kiss in the celebrated “Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville”. He confessed only after he was sued by a couple who falsely claimed to be the pair in his picture. I talked to Doisneau at the time and he told me that he regretted the picture because so many couples claimed over the years to have been its subject.
Ronis said he arranged only one of his shots. He came across the little boy with the baguette and asked him to run past the baker’s shop two or three times. One of his other great photos, “Les Amoureux de la Bastille” [below], was just luck he said. He was on top of the monument to take views of Paris. “I didn’t see anyone and thought I’d be left in peace. I turned round and saw two lovers …looking at the view. I loaded the camera, the young man kissed the temple of his girlfiend. They didn’t notice that I had photographed them.”
Nowadays of course that would be impossible in France. Although almost everyone carries a telephone camera it is illegal to publish the photograph of anyone without their permission. The couple would now be able to sue Ronis for a fortune.