At the Lycée Condorcet in Paris Jean-Philippe Charbonnier studied philosophy, English and German, but at 18, Jean-Philippe received a camera from his father who encouraged him to become a photographer, and he discontinued his studies to work in the movie star portrait studio of Sam Lévin ('discoverer' of Brigitte Bardot). He left his hometown to follow Lévin to Lyon, Marseille and Toulon, then went into exile for two years in neutral Switzerland early in the Second World War, where he met with Jean Manevy who instructed him in the art of typography and journalism.
On return to France in 1944, Jean-Philippe Charbonnier worked for Théodore (Théo) Blanc (1891–1985) and Antoine (Tony) Demilly (1892–1964) in their darkrooms in Lyon, where he learnt how to print. At the end of the war he photographed, in the village of Vienne, near Grenoble, the execution of a Nazi collaborator in front of a crowd of five thousand people. In the late 40s, he became the chief typesetter for Liberation, and later France Dimanche. He also wrote for Point de Vue, where for the first time his photographs were published, in 1949, by editor Albert Plecy (1914-1977).
In 1950, Jean-Philippe Charbonnier was appointed reporter for the magazine Réalités, specializing in stories of French everyday life, but also travelling the world for the magazine. In 1951 he was photographing the Tuaregs in North Africa; in 1954, shoeshine boys in Brazil; as early as 1955 he visited China and then Outer Mongolia, where he was the first Western photographer given a licence to work; then in Moscow during the Cold War; as well as Kuwait, where he made one of his best remembered pictures, of a veiled Kuwaiti woman carrying a sewing machine on her head; the former French Equatorial Africa, where he photographed Albert Schweitzer (and his pelican) in Gabon; and Alaska.
In the 1960s, with television beginning to replace the glossy magazines, Charbonnier turned increasingly to commercial photography, working for large companies such as Carrefour and Renault, freelancing for the Ministry of Labour and the World Health Organisation and also in the fashion industry, photographing Pierre Cardin, his fashions and models, from 1958.
Charbonnier died, of a disease contracted during his travels, in Grasse on May 28, 2004.
His humanist images are 'straight', or realist. This quality in his work was recognised with inclusion amongst Edith Gérin, Janine Niépce and Sabine Weiss, Marcel Bovis, René-Jacques, Jean Dieuzaide, Jean Marquis, Leon Herschtritt, Jean-Louis Swiners, Eric Schwab, and André Papillon in the exhibition Humanist photography, 1945-1968 at the National Library of France October 31, 2006 to January 28, 2007.
Humanist photography, as it became known in France, though never a formal group or movement, was a post-war movement that helped build a French national identity and iconography, both its picturesque places and its social clichés, but also denounced the harsh realities of the period; the move to the cities and growth of the urban working class, poverty, lack of housing and the fear of the Cold War. This was the style of the Rapho photo agency owned and run by Raymond Grosset (who took it over from founder Charles Rado after the war), of which Charbonnier became a member along with others of the younger generation of photojournalist, including Jean Dieuzaide, Sabine Weiss and Janine Niepce. Like his colleagues, Charbonnier identified closely with the classe populaire and focused on the worker, as exemplified by his image Miner being washed by his wife, 1954. One of his stories for Réalités, published January 1955, in which he employed an objective point of view exposed conditions in a mental hospital that are a valuable document today in gauging the progress of psychiatric treatment (a number of the most powerful images were not published due to the sensitivities of the 1950s), while another of his stories, Hélène et Jean, six heures de voyage à travers l'extase et l'angoisse, follows the consequences of drug addiction and overdose.
Quotations: "It took me 30 years and a lot of pain to discover the truth of what Henri Cartier-Bresson always said. One should only use one camera with one lens that coincides with your angle of vision, with the same film at its normal speed. The rest is just gimmick and hardware."
Jean-Philippe Charbonnier married Gisèle Gonfreville, with whom he had two daughters, divorcing her to marry Agathe Gaillard, with whom, in 1975, he opened the first photography gallery in Paris, the Agathe Gaillard Gallery, which dealt in Charbonnier's popular Paris photos. Today, the gallery still exists and shows classic mid-century French photography. He and Agathe had a daughter, Eglantine. In 1996 he married Christine Vaissié, graphic designer and art director, who assisted in the preparation of the great Charbonnier exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris in 1983. She remained with him until the end of his life.