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Pictures of the Past
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Paris has long been a favorite destination for China's travelling lovers. But now, Paris aficionados don't have to take a trip to the city to appreciate its scenery and people.

Willy Ronis in Paris, an exhibition of 190 photos shot by the distinguished French photographer Willy Ronis, will run until May 12 in the Capital Museum in Beijing. Ronis, now 97, is considered the leading figure of the humanist school of photography for his works featuring Paris' scenery and most ordinary people.

"I wasn't going to show the famous cultural relics and architectures of Paris," said Ronis, who did not come to Beijing because of health problems, in a letter to his Beijing audiences. "What I love is wandering in the city to capture people's work and lifestyles."

The exhibition contains five series arranged in chorological order, covering his works from the 1910s to the 60s. The first series, entitled A Parisian Youth, shows the early works of Ronis, who was then an apprentice in his father's photo studio. There are three auto portraits, two pictures of his parents and some showcasing the cultural activities of Paris, such as the celebration of a local newspaper and bands performing on the street.

The second part marks the beginning of Ronis' photography career. Many of his works, which later became famous, came out during this period. Highlights include the capture of leaders of the Popular Front (an alliance of left-wing movements in the 1930s), walking hand in hand on the Plaza Bastille and a photo of the strike in Citroen-Javel.

The photo of the strike was shot in 1938, when he visited the factory and overheard a woman's voice in a room. He went inside and found a woman delivering a passionate speech to the workers. 

He snapped a shot of her extending her hand toward her audience. Ronis did not publish the photo until 1980, when the woman, then 80 years old, recognized herself in the picture. She wrote a letter to Ronis, and the two now-elderly people met in 1982 in the woman's restaurant. The story of their meeting was later made into a short film.

Ronis' affinity for ordinary Parisians can be felt in all of his works, especially those shot after the World War II. Some of them were shown in the section entitled An Incredible Thirst for Images.

Ronis's works during this period showed French people's confidence in their future after the dark days of occupation.

Various people appeared in his works, such as a chip vender, children running in the street, people celebrating Christmas and painters on the street. These characters represented a Paris that was hardworking, dynamic and hopeful. In this period, Ronis focused on the joy of regaining freedom and the festive atmosphere of daily life at that time.

This section showcases his famous photo, The Little Parisian (1952), in which a boy holding a baguette runs along the street with a big smile. The way his hair flies in the wind and glee of smile conveys the elation of newfound freedom.

Such cheerfulness can also bee seen in his three photos of people celebrating Christmas in 1952. The photo shows crowds of Parisians, young and old, holding balloons and laughing enjoying the happiness of freedom despite the material difficulties that came in the war's aftermath.

People obsessed with famous architectures and scenic spots would find destinations such as the Effiel Tower, Plaza Vendome and the Seine River among Ronis' works. But as Smiejan Wanneroy, one of the curators said, Ronis strongly believes in the nobility of the small joys of daily life, and it is his insistence in this belief that helps him create such unique works.

Wanneroy also believes Beijing people will enjoy the photos and find things about themselves in them. "Paris and Beijing have long been the resources of artists' inspiration," she said. "Although they are far away from each other, they have much in common. They both witness the two big cultures' changes, which influence each other."

(China Daily April 19, 2007)

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