Willy Ronis : what I learned

Photo by Vercoquin on Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I visited an exhibition featuring the work of Willy Ronis yesterday.  It is not the exhibition that is featured on the above but I didn’t’t anticipate needing photos for a blog post (I’ll do better next time!) Willy Ronis is a French photographer (1910-2009) whose main body of work was street and documentary photography in and around Paris but also in the south of France. He also did some nude photography. He joint the Rapho photography agency just before the second world war with Brassaï, Robert Doisneau and Ergy Landau. As a left wing sympathiser, he photographed the strikes in the Citroën factory and focused on everyday life for the working classes.

There are no reproductions of photos by Willy Ronis in this article because they are not free of rights. I took a couple of photos to give you an idea of what I saw.

Walking around the exhibition, there were several comments on the photos made by the artist concerning the manner the photo was taken or how it should be printed. These comments can give us some insight and inspiration for our own work. There were three commentaries I took notice of particularly. They were written in French so I’ll give you a quick translation.

“Rue laurence-savart Menilmontant, Paris. 1948”

Have a look at the largest photo.

“A glazier was walking slowly up Rue Laurence Savart , backlit in this winter afternoons sun. His voice had made me leave Rue du retrait where I was looking for a subject and I ran towards him. When a photographer has time in his hunt, he searches for the best place to wait for the unexpected. In the same way, it is necessary, when something appears suddenly to look around the environment quickly to integrate into the frame the  elements that will best enhance the subject. Here it was the reflection of the puddle on the pavement and the stream which balances with the sky and the glass our man was carrying. The print is relatively easy. Don’t over compensate the top to keep a dazzling effect”.

Can you imagine yourself changing pace when you spot a good subject to catch the light ?
Do you take the time to look around the edges of the viewfinder to incorporate or take away some elements of the scene. In some ways a traditional rangefinder has an advantage over the electronic viewfinder or reflex viewfinder because it allows the eye to see out of the frame. If the viewfinder is on the left hand side of the camera and not in the centre, you can take photos with your two eyes open. The fuji x-pro 2 enables this as do the x100 series and also the Leica cameras. On the other hand, the electronic viewfinder gives the exposure and an idea of the contrasts in the photo in real time.

An exercice for the next time I’m out: Use my eyes before using the viewfinder to include interesting elements.

“Place Vendôme, Paris. 1947”

“Place Vendôme, Paris, on a rainy day, probably in the first months of 1947. I was hanging around. Maybe I was coming home from Rapho, the offices were very close. I must have seen a lady striding over the puddle and noticed the reflection of the Colonne Vendôme. By luck it was lunch hour and a group of young girls were leaving their work in the sewing houses nearby. I took several photos of strides and this one is the best. It is a good example of a previsualised photo. For the print, it is useful to keep the upper parts of the street quite light and to darken the blacks of the clothes.”

There is a myth in street photography about the “decisive moment”, a term coined by the American editors of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The original term though is “Images à la sauvette” : “Images on the fly”.  Many people would think that the only way to make street photography is to be in the right place at the right time and press on the shutter in an instant. Obviously, many photographers have practiced this technique with great success.  Willy Ronis shows us that a “decisive moment” may not be unique. He saw the possibility of a photo when he saw the lady step over the puddle but did not walk away. Instead, he waited and found a way to turn the opportunity into a photo. Maybe he tried this method many times and he probably went home empty handed most of the time. His legacy shows what he achieved, not the failures.

An exercice for the next time I’m out:  Look out for the interactions between people and the environment. If something can happen once, it can happen again. Then I can take some time to find the best light and composition before waiting for something to happen.

“Le Béguinage à Bruges, 1951”

Look at the photo on the left.
Copyright Vercoquin. Licence creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.

“It was a grey morning and we were going to the Béguinage of Bruges (it is  house for members of a lay sisterhood). All of a sudden I heard a light and continuous crunching sound. I turned around and it was the sound of a company of Béguines going home after church. I ran. They weren’t far from their house and I wanted to keep some space in front of the group. I even had time to include a tree in the foreground on the left to balance the values and suggest different planes of depth. Needless to say this type of decision is made without thinking.”

Some photos taken with a 35mm or longer lens have a tendency to be flat. The subject appears but there is often little to give a sense of depth unless you are in an open space or looking down a street. The inclusion of an element in the foreground can help achieve this even if it is out of focus.

Parting comments.

Many of the photos I saw were not street photography per say. He took many photos on assignment for news magazines (Life, Regards…). He was also employed for commercial shoots. He also photographed his family in a documentary fashion. I have tried to highlight in this article some insights concerning the days Willy Ronis roamed the streets with his camera as many aspiring street photographers do. It seems important then to underline how many photos he must have taken on a daily basis.

Take-away point : Practice and train your eye. Take photos as often as possible. The cost is next to nothing with digital cameras nowadays but don’t shoot blind. Be aware of composition (The framing and the elements you choose to include or exclude), light and contrasts.

Willy Ronis started with a Rolleiflex (medium format) camera but changed for a rangefinder Foca. The reason he invokes in an interview I saw was that he didn’t want to change film every 12 frames. By the way, what we call “full frame”, the 24×36 sensor, Willy Ronis calls “small format”. (That is for the full frame snobs!). In 1980, he chose a Pentax reflex camera with a zoom. In his life he only used 3 cameras. How many photographers nowadays change camera regularly expecting their photography to improve.

Take-away point : Know your camera! Use the same camera and same lens as often as possible. In that way, the framing of a scene will become more automatic and you can change the necessary settings in the flash. The time you save knowing your camera will be time saved to use your eyes before pressing the shutter button.

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