14 July 1936 | Willy Ronis


One million people marched in Paris on July 14 1936, to celebrate the Bastille holiday and celebrate the victory of Front Populaire in the general election months earlier. Willy Ronis (who took the photo above) called that “It was a party like it had never known before”; soon-to-be a famed photographer, Ronis was just 26 and the above photo was one of his first photos to be sold to a Parisian newspaper.

The photo became the symbol of Front Populaire in that summer of great hopes for social change. The Front, a coalition of Communists, trade unionists, and socialists had won the general election in May and the Socialist leader Léon Blum became the first Socialist — and the first Jewish — Prime Minister of France. He formed a government which included three women ministers at a time when women hadn’t yet gained suffrage. (Women’s suffrage was granted in France only in 1944).

With vigor, Blum’s government set about reforming the French state — many of the measures, good or ill, that we associate today with France where first implemented during his short premiership. He granted the right to strike and collective bargaining, two weeks of paid annual leave (which led to a boom in tourism), and reduced the working week to 40 hours. It was to begin a series of economic intervention that set precedents for the Vichy and postwar governments to consolidate France into a statist nation.

Blum himself was forced out of office in June 1937, as his government divided itself over whether to choose a side in Spanish Civil War.  Blum was briefly Prime Minister again twice (for four weeks in 1938 and five weeks in 1946), but his legacy was made during his first ministry. Despite its bravura reforms and widespread popular support, the Popular Front is now judged as inadequate leaders while Europe darkened into war: “Disappointment and failure,” says Julian Jackson in his seminal Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938.

Centre-left Le Nouvel Observateur was a little more enthusiastic: in 2006, for 70th anniversary of the Popular Front, it called Blum’s first months in office, 100 Days That Changed Our Life.  On the cover of that issue was Ronis’ photo taken on that Bastille Day brimming with expectations and excitements.


Willy Ronis v. Flower Seller

France might review a controversial photography law. IP looks back at one of the uglier episodes of its implementation.  

In 1999, Willy Ronis was sued for a photograph he had taken in 1947; that year, while covering grand Parisian markets, he had took a photo of a young flower seller named Jacqueline in Les Halles. In 1984, Ronis and the flower seller came into contact again through a mutual friend. Ronis remembers, “she kissed me and gave me flowers and we became almost close friends.” For years, she had the photograph framed in her shop.

But in the 1990s, the French legislation changed, pronouncing “ownership of one’s image”. This law — which was also retrospective  — is perhaps the most stringent privacy law ever enacted by any country. Manipulated by lawyers, as Ronis put it, the flowerseller successfully sued then 90-year-old photographer. Ronis was fined £2500, and his agency Rapho, somewhat more;  although he could still show the photo in exhibitions, the court banned Ronis from reproducing the photography in print media, lest the copies end up in France. So precise was this non-dissemination clause that when the Guardian interviewed him, he could not allow it to reprint the photo in Britain, in case copies reached across the channel. [1]

After he lost the case, Ronis memorably said, “Cette décision tue la mémoire”. He, however, agreed with some aspects of the law, while reflecting on the nature of photography [I translated]:

It is to say that young people need to be more attentive to the consequences of their photos…. Yet in my life I have never made ​​derogatory pictures of anyone. I’ve never had people in compromising situations. But people can now attack you if you did not asked for their permission. That this permission must be written authorization! If each time you take street photography, you will have to collect their authorizations with a ledger. No, that will be the end of the job!

I think the law will be modified because it is just too outrageous. Meanwhile, it is not just photographers who cannot rest easy, but also this country’s historical memory too. Photography matters in modern history.


[1]  For this reason, Iconic Photos itself is not entirely sure whether the photo depicted above was the photo in question. If not, it must be a pretty similar innocuous picture.

Willy Ronis | Le Nu Provençal

The Telegraph says he was more artistic than Doisneau and less patrician than Cartier-Bresson; like those masters to whom he is frequently compared, Willy Ronis embodied the Golden Age of photography, where photojournalists composed lyrical odes to world-changing events and banal everyday lives alike.

Ronis was best known for a nude of his wife, Marie-Anne Lansiaux, bending over a sink in a rustic bathroom. The photo was almost like a Bonnard painting and reflected that easy rustic feel of country life. Ronis remembered:

We had a little stone cottage at Gordes. It was a hot summer, and I was repairing the attic. I needed a trowel, so I came down and there was Marie-Anne standing naked on the stone flags, washing herself from the tin basin. ‘Don’t move,’ I said and, my hands full of plaster, I grabbed my Rolleiflex and took four shots. It was the second shot which I chose.

It took two minutes in all. Miracles exist, I experienced it. I have never been so anxious as when I developed that film. I felt that, if the image was good, technically and aesthetically, it would be a major moment in my life, a prosaic moment of extraordinary poetry.”

He met the jewel painter, Marie-Anne,when both of them fled to Provence after the German Occupation of France in 1940. They were married after the war, when he also joined the French Communists at the urging of Marie-Anne, who was more militantly political.

Soon afterwards, they bought the above cottage in a Provençal town known for its artist communes. Willy divided his career between the countryside and the capital, gradually becoming a world-renowned photographer. The couple lived in that small cottage until Marie-Anne’s death in 1991, by which time Ronis’s career had come a full circle: in his last major work, he photographed Marie-Anne, now with Alzheimer’s, sitting alone in a park surrounded by autumn trees in a touching collection of photographs chronicled her gradual decline and increasing isolation.

Ronis died in 2009.