The Arty Semite

Willy Ronis, France’s Photographer of the Working Poor, Exhibited at the Mint

By Benjamin Ivry

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Willy Ronis, autoportrait, 1951

The great French Jewish photographer Willy Ronis died last year at age 99, and until August 22, his centenary exhibit “Willy Ronis: the Poetics of Engagement” (“Willy Ronis, une poétique de l’engagement”) can be seen, oddly enough, at the Paris Mint, la Monnaie de Paris.

Whereas Ronis was a left-wing defender of the downtrodden working poor, la Monnaie trumpets materialistically on its English-language website: “If you are a passionate collector of gold medals or if you have a coin collection, you should keep in touch with the world of collections, gifts and jewels.” Nonetheless, the Ronis exhibit is beautifully humane, and a splendid catalog from the Paris art publisher Democratic Books conveys the essence of why Ronis, of Lithuanian Russian Jewish ancestry, was so universally loved.

The catalog includes familiar images of working class travails, like “Rose Zehner, Strike at the Javel-Citroën Factory, 1938.” Yet there also lesser-seen treasures like a charming 1955 series of photos taken in London, showing hearty, hefty pub denizens who might appear to be French, except that instead of wine, they quaff pints of Guinness.

Later, Ronis captured images like “Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, 1967” (“Vieux Cimitière Juif, Prague, 1967”), in which broken tombstones, standing askew, seem to allude to the chaotic violence of decades past. Despite such awareness of historical tragedy, Ronis’s art is ultimately affirmative and forward-looking, like the zesty 1939 portrait of his friend, the noted Hungarian Jewish photographer Robert Capa.

According to le Monde, Ronis’s Judaism caused a minor squabble between La Monnaie and his executors, when at the insistence of the latter, information was added about Ronis being Jewish, and the fact that he had to go into hiding during World War II, which la Monnaie had originally omitted from the exhibition’s texts. Le Monde adds that after this change was made, la Monnaie got its revenge by referring to Ronis’s executors sniggeringly as “E.T.’s.”

Free of such Gallic sniping, another worthy centennial tribute comes from Paris’s Editions Hoëbeke, publisher of Ronis’s albums on the themes of Paris and Provence. Now comes a new title, “Behind the Viewfinder of Willy Ronis: Photos and Statements.” In a self-analysis rejecting any notion of “objective” photography, Ronis asserts: “To photograph presupposes an intent; it is a willful act, dictated by personal motivation.” Indeed, we honor Ronis not just for his intent, but for his accomplishments.

Watch a video about this summer’s Paris exhibit celebrating Ronis’s centennial:


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