French kissing, Ronis-style

Story by Jack Foley

THE WORK of one of the great hunters of Paris street scenes during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is now on show at London's Hackelbury Gallery, in Launceston Place, offering a gentle, almost romantic, insight into life in the French capital during that time.

The self-titled exhibition, Willy Ronis, features 45 black and white vintage photographs by the acclaimed photographer, concentrating in particular on the postwar years from 1945 to the late 1950s, and featuring the odd recent image, during the 1990s, when the tireless artist took up parachuting (a sport he was to indulge in well into his nineties).

The son of Jews from the Crimea and Lithuania, Ronis grew up on the edge of Montmartre, where he helped his father run the family's portrait studio. He took on more of the burden of the studio when his father was diagnosed with cancer and quickly became bored with the formality of its confines, opting instead to roam the streets, often at night, with a collection of small cameras, observing fairs, markets and traffic and developing the idea that the life of a city contains many subversive elements beneath its ordinary exterior.

His talent was quickly recognised and he sold his photographs to magazines such as Regards, a Communist weekly which was renowned for using politically inspired Modernist photography and graphics. It was during this time that Ronis came across other photographers working the Paris streets, including Robert Doisneau, whom he befriended and became influenced by.

When his father died in 1936, the 26-year-old Ronis was confident enough to leave behind the family studio and set out on his own.

The postwar images featured in the Hackelbury's collection were taken during a bleak time in Paris history when, materially, conditions for most of French society were worse than they had been during Nazi occupation. This was because industry and communications had been largely destroyed, housing conditions were still poor, fuel was in short supply and simply getting enough to eat became a major problem.

In spite of this, the younger generation emerged with a renewed vitality and appetite for life that had been largely dampened by the wasteful war years. It was this emerging happiness that Ronis chose to capture and much of his time was spent where he knew he could find couples kissing; heralding the onslaught of the new, romantic era.

Included in the exhibition is a portrait of a nurse kissing an injured, liberated French soldier goodbye (which is truly touching and which the photographer refused to publish at the time), as well as the classic Les Amourex de la Bastille, featuring a young couple dressed in their Sunday best turning quietly to each other to embrace while on top of the Bastille Tower (which is now closed to the public). It offers a genuinely thrilling view of Paris.

By the late 1950s, Ronis was a widely-respected photographer whose work had been widely published. He had also been featured at two American exhibitions, curated by Edward Steichen, who placed his work at New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art alongside the likes of Brassai and his friend, Doisneau.

Visitors to the Impressionist exhibition will no doubt delight in the cafe culture captured by Ronis, which feature cobblestone streets, attractive young lovers gazing out over some of the world's most popular views, and, of course, life among the baguettes (a defining feature, even today, of Parisian life).

Pictured above, right, is a portrait of Ronis's wife in Provence, in 1949.

The Hackelbury Fine Art Gallery is located at 4 Launceston Place, London, W8 and the exhibition can be viewed until April 27.