Willy Ronis: Requiem for a Humanist

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2461630.jpgFriends of photography, and of French heritage, are mourning the death of Willy Ronis, most famous for his Nu Provençal, Gordes (1949). It's striking how many of the iconic images of France were created by immigrants or their children -- Ronis, Brassaï, André Kertesz -- just as the Hungarian-born cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond created the look of all-American classics like Easy Rider, The Deer Hunter, and Deliverance.

An aspiring composer as a young man, Ronis came to photography through a mixture of accident -- taking over his ailing father's commercial studio -- and inspiration from an exhibition of art photographers' work. The Depression and the mass demonstrations of Paris let Ronis become a participant observer of Popular Front militance -- to his dismay when American publications started using his images in what he considered a hostile, conservative sense after the War.

Ronis was one of the last stars of humanism, the search for universal experience in moments of happiness and tragedy transcending race, religion, nationality, and social class -- a movement epitomized by the blockbuster international traveling exhibition that William Steichen organized for the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, The Family of Man, to which Ronis contributed. (A kindred theatrical work, the Pulitzer prizewinning play, The Diary of Anne Frank, opened the same year on nearby Broadway.) Originally a Cold War bridge between East and West and a healing gesture following war and genocide, utopian humanism has survived the trends that scorned it, including the New Left and postmodernism. But we should temper our nostalgia; newer studies remind us that some Marxists and conservatives alike saw the exhibition as subtle propaganda for the other side. And Ronis himself was slow to see the evils of Stalinism, not resigning from the Communist Party of France until the 1960s.

The Times (London) obituary has a shocker of paragraph toward the end:

In 1999, in an important test case for the right of privacy in France, Ronis and [his agency] Rapho were heavily fined for his having taken 50 years earlier a photograph of a flower seller without her written consent. She had proudly displayed the image in her shop all that time until it was spotted by a zealous lawyer.

There's more about the case in a 2002 article in the Guardian; Ronis remained gentle, and a  gentleman, about the case. But curiously -- considering the economic stakes in photography, and the implications of privacy legislation -- I found nothing about it in an electronic search of US law reviews. Some people would say that the French law, at least as I understand it from just two brief articles, is the true affirmation of humanism, the individual's freedom from unauthorized commercial exploitation of his or her image. But it's also an attack on a French national treasure, the heritage of candid street photography not only of Ronis but of  Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. Consider another immortal Ronis image, a little boy bounding joyfully along the sidewalk, a baguette under his arm. What was the photographer supposed to do, get arrested following him home to get a parental signature? The law all but kills Ronis's definition of humanist photography as a difficult walk "toward a poetric representation of modest happiness." (See one of Ronis's last interviews, in French, here.) Probably for this reason, scores of his subjects ignored their "rights" and congratulated the photographer on the occasion of his valedictory retrospective show in Paris's Hôtel de Ville in 2005.

The Web era has dealt another blow to humanism, promoting a new aesthetic of vividly colored, electronically manipulated imagery and making 35mm black-and-white street photography look hopelessly grainy. Noting this trend on the photo-sharing site Flickr, the New York Times Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan last year recounted a member's mischievous posting of a Cartier-Bresson classic of a bicyclist passing a spiral staircase, as his own, and the jeering response of members apparently ignorant of its provenance:

"When everything is blurred you cannot convey the motion of the bicyclist," one commenter carped. "Why is the staircase so 'soft'? Camera shake?" wrote another. "Gray, blurry, small, odd crop," someone concluded.

Nothing can bring back the humanist moment, but considering the alternatives, including some of the new online photography featured by Heffernan, it's looking better all the time.

(Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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