Willy Ronis was born in Paris on August 14, 1910, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Lithuania. Ronis learned photography with his father in the family portrait studio. The business offered three primary services: portraiture, retail and retouching of prints for other photographers. A gifted draughtsman at school, he was recruited to assist in retouching portraits. Despite this early training and influence, Ronis’ primary love was music.
From the time he was a boy, Ronis studied piano and he planned on becoming a composer. His parents, however, urged him to study law instead—which he did for a year at the Sorbonne—but maintained his musical studies and paid for them by playing the violin in a restaurant orchestra. These paths were severed when his father fell ill to cancer, and Ronis had to play a greater roll in the family business.
At his father’s shop, Ronis met other photographers of his generation, including David “Chim” Seymour who would become a good friend. In the 1930’s he also came to meet Robert Capa (then known by his given name André Friedmann) and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The four of them, along with George Rodger, founded the, now celebrated, Magnum agency. By 1936, his father’s studio was closed and Ronis went free-lance, continuing with commercial commissions and beginning reportage. His bourgeoning career would be put on hold with the onset of WWII.
In 1946 he joined Robert Doisneau, Brassaï and others at the Rapho Agency. Willy Ronis was the first French photographer to work for LIFE Magazine. In 1953 Edward Steichen included his work in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art titled Five French Photographers—the other four having been Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Izis and Brassaï. Ronis was also included in the famed Family of Man exhibit in 1955. In 1957 Ronis was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Biennale.
Ronis began teaching part-time in 1957, due primarily to the growing competition within the field of photo reportage. By 1968 he was teaching full time and over the next eight year taught at the School of Fine Arts in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Saint Charles, Marseilles. In 1979 he was awarded the Grand Prix des Arts et Lettres for Photography by the Minister for Culture.
Since 1983 Willy Ronis’ work has been published and exhibited with modest regularity. His blue-collar pastoral images of rural France and soft-spoken images of bustling Paris, primarily of the 1940’s and 50’s, have enchanted a new generation. In 2005-2006 the City of Paris presented “Willy Ronis in Paris”, a big retrospective show of his work, that had a huge success with over than 500,000 visitors.
Ronis died at age 99, on September 12, 2009.