In Living Black and White

It's quite unusual for Denver's gallery-goers to be treated to more than one good photography show at a time. But this spring, interesting shows are popping up the way dandelions are sprouting on lawns. At Camera Obscura--where good things are always developing--the exhibition Willy Ronis provides a retrospective look at the work of an important French photographer. The stunning group show Cuba: Siempre Viva at the Museo de las Americas features contemporary work direct from Havana. Closer to home, the Mackey Gallery showcases provocative work by several locals in Photo '97. Taken together, the three shows survey a wide swath: from classic black-and-white work to mixed-media pieces in which photography is but one of the elements.

Camera Obscura director Hal Gould describes Willy Ronis as "the most important living French photographer." Yet according to Gould, Ronis is almost entirely unknown in this country. In an effort to correct that perceived injustice, Gould, a longtime fan of Ronis's work, organized what is Ronis's first solo show in the United States.

Ronis was instrumental in the development of the "Nouvelle Vision," a movement that served as the French corollary to Depression-era American documentary photography such as that created for the Farm Service Administration. Born in Paris in 1910 to a Jewish immigrant couple from Russia, Ronis grew up in the shadow of his father, an accomplished photographer in his own right who must have provided inspiration early on. The younger Ronis first attempted a career as a composer, but by the 1930s, he was well on his way to becoming a pioneer of French modern photography.

Finding inspiration in the everyday life of Paris, especially among the lower classes, Ronis immortalized simple people without ever looking down his lens at them. This was the work that made him a key figure in the Nouvelle Vision. However, his artistic development was soon interrupted by a wolf at the gate. Beginning in 1940, the Nazis occupied most of the northern part of France, including Paris, while the southern part of the country was run by the Nazi-puppet Vichy government of Marshal Henri Petain. Ronis, a Jew living in Paris, found himself on the decidedly wrong side of this arrangement.

In 1941, with fifteen friends, he attempted to break out of the German-occupied zone. A Nazi patrol sabotaged the plan. "I was nearly caught," Ronis recalls in a biography provided by the gallery. "I ran into the woods...counting eight shots as I zig-zagged. After a while I summoned up the courage to go back and see what had happened. All my friends had been caught."

After escaping to the south, Ronis joined the "Bande a Prevert (the Prevert Gang)," a group of surrealist artists who gathered around poet Jacque Prevert. The gang was active during the war under the Vichy regime and kept a low profile to avoid arrests by the Nazis, who regarded modern art as a subversive activity.

When the war ended, Ronis resumed his photography career. In 1945 he received an important official commission, to document the return of 1.5 million French prisoners of war from Germany. These photographs were widely disseminated in the world press and led Life magazine to hire Ronis as a photographer. The relationship with Life was not a happy one for the politically liberal Ronis, though, because right-wing captions were often appended to his photographs. The last straw for Ronis, according to Gould, came when a "Red menace" caption was placed under a photograph of striking autoworkers. Ronis supported the strikers, and in his own expression of solidarity, quit his job with the magazine.

In the years since, Ronis has worked for Vogue and Jardin des Modes. In the 1960s he began to teach photography at various French universities and continued for two decades until retiring in the 1980s. At that time, he returned to Paris just in time for his wholesale rediscovery by French art collectors and dealers. Gould says that today the 87-year-old Ronis spends most of his time printing from his negatives in an attempt to satisfy newfound admirers, but he works at a painstakingly slow pace and can hardly keep up with demand.

The show at Camera Obscura illustrates this shortage of material. "Le Nu Provençal, Gordes, 1949," a vintage silver print, depicts a nude woman washing in a basin in a spare and primitive room. "It is Ronis's most famous image," Gould says, "but he didn't have any available." Gould's solution was to show a print from his own private collection; unlike the rest of the photographs in the show, "Le Nu Provencal" is not for sale.

"Le Nu Provencal" is classic Ronis, using natural light with dramatic and almost theatrical effects. Another early photo that expresses Ronis's great gift for working with glare and shadow is "Rue Rambutem, Frites, 1949," another archival silver print. In this print, two women work behind the counter of a tabac preparing French fries. One has spied Ronis and smiles directly at the lens. Behind the woman, sun filters through dirty glass windows, set off by back-lit steam emanating from the cooking potatoes. Food is also central to another of Ronis's great images of post-war France: the little boy caught running down the street with a baguette under his arm in "Paris, 1952."

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia