Willy Ronis, who died on September 12 2009 aged 99, was the last of the great photographers whose images came to define postwar France; like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, he was an aesthete of photo-reportage and street life, capturing politics and poetry in the humdrum and the everyday.
He was, however, more artistic than Doisneau and less patrician than Cartier-Bresson. Ronis had a tender eye, photographing working-class neighbourhoods where men drank rough wine and children played on the streets.
In Le Petit Parisien (1952), a young boy wearing shorts runs down the pavement, laughing, carrying a baguette that is as long as he is tall. In Rue Rambuteau (1946), two waitresses stand behind the counter in a busy café, wearing aprons that are crumpled and dirty, leaving us in no doubt that their working days are long and hard. But with smoke rising from the grill and light falling across the scene, illuminating their hair, the documentary image is also a composition full of beauty.
To a contemporary eye, such themes – lovers kissing, smoky cafés and Parisian rooftops – can seem nostalgic and clichéd; but the lives Ronis documented during the reconstruction of France after the war were anything but cosy. The country was wracked by poverty and social unrest, and Ronis’ vision was radical: for those who wanted France to be seen as modern, he showed a humble world that was entrenched in the past.