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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Gisèle Freund (1908 or 1912 - 2000)


German-born French photographer, famous for her documentary photographs and portraits of writers and artists. In the 1930s, Gisele Freund's subjects nearly covered the who is who of Parisian intelligentsia, writers, painters, philosophers. Her best-known book is Photographie et société (1974), about the uses and abuses of the photographic medium.

"For a writer, his portrait is the only link he can establish with his readers. When we read a book whose content moves us, we are interested to look at the author's face, which is generally printed on the jacket since the publisher is aware of our wish to see if these features correspond to the idea we have formed of the author. This image is thus very important to the man of letters. He prefers a photographer in whom he can have confidence." (from Gisèle Freund: Photographer, 1985)

Gisèle Freund was born in Schöneberg, near Berlin, into a wealthy Jewish family. Clara, her mother, came from a family of industrialists. Julius Freund, Gisèle's father, ran the family business; he was also an art collector. Julius took her from an early age to art museums, and at home she met talented painters.

Freund became interested in photography in 1928 when her father bought her a Leica, a very handy apparatus. Its 50mm ELMAR f/3.5 lens was designed by the Professor of physics, Max Berek; the controls were on the top of the camera, it was simple, small, and efficient. Freund was impressed by the ease with which the little 35 mm camera could be handled.

Originally Freund wanted to be a sociologist, but she was also attracted by literature. She studied sociology and art history at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau in 1931, and continued her studies under Karl Mannheim, Theodor Adorno, and Norbert Elias at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Frankfurt. During this period Freund joined the socialist student organization at the university. In 1933, when when the National Socialists came to power, the family emigrated to France. Freund smuggled out photographs she had taken of Hitler's political victims.

Freund entered at the Sorbonne, receiving her PhD in 1936. In the mid-1930s, Freund played chess with the cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin at a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Also the Bibliothèque Nationale connected them – Benjamin wrote there a study of Baudelaire, Freund her dissertation on early French photography, La Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle.

In 1936 Freund photographed the effects of the Depression in England for the Life. The magazine opened a new era of photojournalism. Her photographs, showing the misery of the "distressed areas" were inserted in the middle of an article of the British aristocracy. Freund's article, 'Northern England,' published in Life, on December 14, 1936, was written under the pseudonym 'Girix' (Gi for Gisèle, Rix for Richard). Freund also worked as a freelance journalist and writer for Weekly Illustrated, Vu, Picture Post, Paris-Match, Du, etc. In 1937 Freund married a Frenchman named Pierre Blum; they separated after a few years and divorced officially in 1948.

Freund's dissertation was published in book form by Adrienne Monnier (1892-1955). Freund visited her bookstore, La Maison des Amis des Livres, first time in 1935. With Monnier's help, Freund was able to enter the literary circles. She also started to spent an increasing amount of time in the apartment of Adrienne and Sylvia Beach, who owned the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. When Freund planned a photo shoot at the bookshop, James Joyce agreed to be pictured with Sylvia. Her impressions of the writer she collected in James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years (1965) and Three Days With Joyce (1982). Monnier, who was Sylvia's partner, became Freund's longtime friend. They also vacationed together in Venice.

In 1935 Freund recorded the Congress for the Defence of Culture in Paris, a historical gathering of writers from thirty eight-countires. Only two photographers were present, Freund and David Seymour, known to his friends as "Chim." When Joyce's Finnegan's Wake came out simultaneously in England and the United States in May 1939, the Time magazine published a color photograph of Joyce by Freund on its cover.

Before the outbreak of the war, Freund made hundreds of portraits of artists and writers. Her subjects included among others Louis Aragon, Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Marcel Duchamp, T.S. Eliot, André Gide, James Joyce, André Malraux, Romain Rolland, Jean-Paul Sartre, Elsa Triolet, Paul Valéry. Freund also photographed women who were lesbian or bisexual, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Beach, who was "tall, slender, and sportive-looking and always wore tailored suits," as Freund later recalled, and Monnier, a "plump little woman who was always dressed in gray." On condition that the photos remain private, Freund was allowed photograph Woolf in her house in 1939 – Woolf did not like appearing in public. The writer never saw the results of Freund's work. Furious when she discovered  that Freund planned to exhibit the portraits, Woolf  called her in a letter a "devil woman."

When G.B. Shaw sat as a model, the Irish writer said: "Above all, don't cut off my beard!" In March 1939 Freund showed her color photos at Monnier's bookstore. Most of the writers attending the oocasion did not like themselves but thought that the portraits of their colleagues had a "good likeness."

"My camera led me to pay special heed to that which I took most to heart: a gesture, a sign, an isolated expression," Freund once said. "Gradually, I came to believe that everything was summed up in the human face." Many of her photograps were made in color; before Eastman Kodak and Agfa produced their new multilayered color films in the second half of the 1930s, there was not large quantities material on the market for these kind of pictures. Freund herself was fascinated by the new medium and argued that color was "closer to life."

In 1939 Freund had a private exhibition, entitled Ecrivains célèbres, at the Galerie Adrienne in Paris and the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in London. After the German Invasion of France, Freund went into hinding in a village in the province of Lot, Southern France. In 1942 she fled to Argentina, with the help Victoria Ocampo, who had founded in 1931 the literary magazine Sur. Later she moved to Mexico. For years she traveled up and down through the countries of Latin America. During this period she photographed Eva Perón, the mistress of Colonel Perón and later the president's wife. Eva was happy to show her jewels, which all came from Paris, to photographers and journalist. Freund also became acquainted with the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who posed in her home, in her garden feeding the ducks, lying in bed, and with her dogs. Because of her friendship with promiment leftist artists abd writers, Freund was denied entry in to the United States.

Freund worked as a photographer and assistant film producer to members of the Louis Jouvet Theatre Company. In 1944-45 she was employed as a photojournalist for the France Libre propaganda services. From 1947 to 1954 Freund worked for Magnum Photos as a stringer; Freund later said that she was a full member of the co-operative agency. Magnum was founded by the legendary Robert Capa. "If you want to make money, give up your job as a reporter," Capa said to Gisèle Freund. "It will earn you a good living, but you'll never get rich." Writing of Capa in The World in My Camera, Freund observed that "At the end of an incredibly brilliant career, he had nothing but a few well-cut suits, though his work as a whole was of immeasurable value." (Blood & Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa by Alex Kershaw, 2004, p. 219) 

To Mexico Freund was invited by the poet and writer Alfonso Reyes, originally to give a lecture on French literature. Eventually her stay took two years. Freund soon became close friends with Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Her photographs of their daily life, a number of which were taken in their home, the Casa Azul (Blue House). A much-reprinted image of Kahlo shows the artist laying in a four-poster bed, with a distant, thoughtful look in her eyes. (Kahlo had recently had several operations and she was confined to a wheelchair.) Freund's photograps of the couple were later collected in Frida Kahlo: The Gisèle Freund Photographs (2015).

When Life published in December 1950 an intimate view on Eva Peron, it was illustrated by Freund's photographs; the text was written by Robert Neville. Some of the pictures gave a glimpse inside Evita's luxurious wardrobe. One of them shows her admiring an Azur blue mink coat, which "has only one duplicate in world." "Each year a special "couturier envoy" is sent to Paris to bring back the best work of great designers." This first look at the pivate life of the controversial Argentine first lady drew the attention of the FBI – President Juan Perón crossed swords with U.S. officials when he welcomed Nazi war criminal into the country – and four years later Freund was blacklisted.

Upon returning from Mexico, Freund settled in 1954 permanently in Paris, where she shared an apartment with her friend on the Rue Lalande. In the 1970s, Freund traveled in Japan, the Near East, and the United States. Freund received in 1978 the Cultural Prize of the 'Deutsche Gesellscaft für Photographie' and in 1980 she was awarded the French 'Grand Prix National des Arts.'

Following the election of François Mitterand to the presidency in 1981, Freund became Mitterrand's official photographer. She gradually ceased photographing in the 1980s. A major retrospective exhibition of her work was held at the Musée National d'Art Moderne (Centre Georges-Pompidou) in 1991. Gisèle Freund died in Paris on March 31, 2000.

For further reading: 'In the Land of Faces', by Adrienne Monner, in Verve, no. 5-6 (1939); Memorable Life Photograph, text by Edward Streichen (1951); Camera, Nov. (1968); Au Pays des Visages 1938-1968 by Pierre Gaudibert, (1968); Women of Photography by Margery Mann (1975); Gisèle Freund: Fotografien 1932-1977 by Klaus Honnef (1977); 'The World in Gisèle Freund's Lens' by Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times, Dec. 28 (1979); Farbe im Photo by Fritz Binder et al. (1981); Contemporary Photographers, ed. by George Walsh, Colin Naylor, Michael Held (1982); Gisèle Freund by Hans Joachim Neyer (1988); You Have Seen Their Faces: Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin and Margaret Bourke-White as Headhunters of the Thirties by M. Kay Flavel (1994); 'Gisele Freund Is Dead at 91' by Suzanne Daley, The New York Times, April 1 (2000); Gisele Freund by Rauda Jamis (2002); 'Gisèle Freund' by Annalisa Zox-Weaver, in Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Volume 1: A-F, edited by Lynne Warren (2006); 'Gisèle Freund,' in Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman by Boris Friedewald (2014); 'Grete Stern y Gisèle Freund: el retrato como desencuentro' by Clara Masnatta, in La cámara como método: la fotografía moderna de Grete Stern y Horacio Coppola, edited by Natalia Brizuela and Alejandra Uslenghi (2021)

Selected works:

  • La photographie en France au 19me siècle: essai de sociologie et d’esthétique, 1936
  • La Photografía y las Classes Medias, 1941
  • Mexique Précolombien, 1954 (text by Paul Rivet; photograps by Gisèle Freund)
  • James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years, 1965 (with V.B. Carleton; preface by Simone de Beauvoir)
  • Photographie und bürgerliche Gesellschaft: eine kunstsoziologische Studie, 1968 (foreword by H. P. Gente)
  • Le Monde et Ma Caméra, 1970
    - The World in My Camera (translated by June Guicharnaud, 1974)
  • Photographie et Société, 1974
    - Photography and Society (Boston: D. R. Godine, 1980)
  • Mémoires de l'Oeil, 1977
  • Trois Jours avec Joyce, 1982
    - Three Days With Joyce (preface by Richard Ellmann; translated by Peter St. John Ginna, 1985)
  • Gisèle Freund, Itinéraires, 1985
    - Gisèle Freund: Photographer (foreword by Christian Caujolle; translated from the French by John Shepley, 1985)
  • Catalogue de l'Oeuvre Photographique Gisèle Freund, 1991
  • Gisèle Freund, Portrait, 1991
  • Gisèle Freund, die Frau mit der Kamera: Fotografien 1929-1988, 1992 (with an essay by Hans Puttnies)
  • Gisèle Freund: Berlin-Frankfurt-Paris, Fotografien 1929-1962, 1996 (edited by Marita Braun-Ruiter)
  • Malraux Sous le Regard de Gisèle Freund, 1996
  • Gesichter der Sprache: Schriftsteller um Adrienne Monnier: Fotografien zwischen 1935 und 1940, 1996
  • Adrienne Monnier Saint-John Perse et les amis des livres: exposition de photographies de Gisèle Freund, 1998
  • Gisèle Freund, l’œil frontière: Paris 1933-1940, 2011
  • Carnets de Gisèle Freund, 2011
  • Frida Kahlo: the Gisèle Freund photographs, 2014 (with texts by Gérard de Cortanze, Gisèle Freund, and Lorraine Audric; translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott)
  • A Picture Of Frida Kahlo, interview by Gisele Freund, Novedades: Mexico en la cultura June 10, 1951, 2020 (in Frida Kahlo: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, with an introduction by Hayden Herrera)

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