Gisèle Freund was a German-born French photographer and photojournalist, famous for her documentary photography and portraits of writers and artists. Her best-known book, Photographie et société
(1974), is about the uses and abuses of the photographic medium in the age of technological reproduction. In 1977, she became President of the French Association of Photographers, and in 1981, she took the official portrait of French President François Mitterrand. She was made Officier des Arts et Lettres in 1982 and Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, the highest decoration in France, in 1983. In 1991, she became the first photographer to be honored with a retrospective at the Musée National d’art Moderne in Paris (Centre Georges Pompidou). Freund's major contributions to photography include using the Leica
Camera (with its ability to house one film roll with 36 frames) for documentary reportage and her early experimentation with Kodachrome and 35 mm Agfacolor, which allowed her to develop a "uniquely candid portraiture style"
that distinguishes her in 20th century photography. She is buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, France near her home and studio at 12 rue Lalande.
Freund was born into a textile merchant family on 19 December 1908 to Julius and Clara (nee Dressel) Freund, a wealthy Jewish couple in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. Her father, Julius Freund, was a keen art collector with an interest in the work of photographer Karl Blossfeldt, whose close-up studies explored the forms of natural objects. Freund's father bought Gisèle her first camera, a Voigtländer 6x9 in 1925 and a Leica
camera as a present for her graduation in 1929. In 1931, Freund studied sociology and art history at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Breisgau, Germany; and from 1932-33 she studied at the Institute for Social, Sciences, University of Frankfurt under Theodor W. Adorno, Karl Mannheim and Norbert Elias (also known as the Frankfurt School). At university, she became an active member of a student socialist group and was determined to use photography as an integral part of her socialist practice. One of her first stories, shot on May 1, 1932, "shows a recent march of anti-fascist students"
who had been "regularly attacked by Nazi groups."
The photos show Walter Benjamin, a good friend of Freund, and Bertolt Brecht.
In March 1933, a month after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, Walter Benjamin fled to Paris on May 30, Gisèle followed him since she was both a socialist activist and a Jew. She escaped to Paris with her negatives strapped around her body to get them past the border guards. Gisèle and Walter Benjamin would continue their friendship in Paris, where Freund would famously photograph him reading at the National Library. They both studied and wrote about art in the 19th and 20th centuries as Freund continued her studies at the Sorbonne. In 1935, Andre Malraux invited Freund to document First International Congress in Defense of Culture in Paris, where she was introduced to and subsequently photographed many of the notable French artists of her day. Freund befriended the famed literary partners, Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company, and Adrienne Monnier of Maison des Amis des Livres. In 1935, Monnier arranged a marriage of convenience for Freund with Pierre Blum so that Freund could obtain a visa to remain in France legally (they officially divorced after the war in 1948).
In 1936, while Sylvia Beach was visiting the United States, Freund moved into Monnier and Beach's shared apartment and they became intimates. When Beach returned, she ended her intimate relationship with Monnier yet maintained a strong friendship with both Monnier and Freund. Freund finished her Ph.D. in Sociology and Art at the Sorbonne in 1936, and Monnier published the doctoral dissertation as "La photographie en France au dix-neuvieme siècle,"
under the La Maison des Amis des Livres imprint by Monnier.
Monnier introduced Gisèle Freund to the artists and writers who would prove her most captivating subjects. Later that year, Freund became internationally famous with her photojournalistic piece, Northern England
, which was published in Life
magazine on December 14, 1936 and showed the effects of the depression in England. No magazine in France could publish color photographs at that time, so Freund's work with Life
—one of the first color mass magazines—would start a lifelong relationship between the photographer and magazine. In 1938, Monnier suggested that Freund photograph James Joyce for his upcoming book, Finnegans Wake. Joyce, who disliked being photographed, invited Gisèle Freund to his Paris flat for a private screening of her previous work. He was impressed enough by Freund's work to allow her to photograph him, and over a period of three days, she captured the most intimate portraits of Joyce during his time in Paris.
In 1939, after being "twice refused admission to Tavistock Square,"
Freund gained the confidence of Virginia Woolf and captured the iconic color photographs of the Woolfs on display in the English National Portrait Gallery
. Woolf even "agreed to change her clothes to see which best suited the colour harmony and insisted on being photographed with Leonard (and their spaniel Pinka). In some of the prints, Woolf is pale and lined, in others smiling a little and more youthful. The background of fabrics and mural panels by Bell and Grant adds to the value of the images; this was the inner sanctum of the queen of Bloomsbury where parties were given and friends came to tea. Just over a year later the house was destroyed in The Blitz."
On June 10, 1940, with the Nazi invasion of Paris looming, Freund escaped Paris to Free France in the Dordogne. Her husband by convenience, Pierre, had been captured by the Nazis and sent to a prison camp. He was able to escape and met with Freund before going back to Paris to fight in the Resistance. As the wife of an escaped prisoner, a Jew, and a Socialist, Freund "feared for her life."
In 1942, with the help of André Malraux, who told his friends, "we must save Gisèle!,"
Freund fled to Buenos Aires, Argentina "at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, director of the periodical Sur. Ocampo was at the center of the Argentinean intellectual elite, and through her, Freund met and photographed many great writers and artists, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda."
While living in Argentina, Freund started a publishing venture called Ediciones Victoria. She writes, "In reality, I started this for the De Gaulle government in exile where I was working in the Information ministry, volontairement without payment."
She also founds a relief action committee for French artists and becomes a spokesperson for Free France. In 1947, Freund signed a contract with Magnum Photos
as a Latin America contributor, but by 1954, she was declared persona non grata by the U.S. Government at the height of the Red Scare for her socialist views, and Robert Capa
forced her to break ties with Magnum
. In 1950, her photo coverage of a bejeweled Eva Peron for Life
magazine caused a diplomatic stir between the United States and Argentina and upset many of Peron's supporters—the ostentatious photographs went against the official party line of austerity; Life
Magazine was blacklisted in Argentina, and once again, Freund had to escape a country with her negatives. She moved to Mexico and became friends with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. In 1953, she moved back to Paris permanently. Over the life of her career, she went on over 80 photojournalism assignments, primarily for Life
, but also Du, The Sunday Times
(London), Vu, Picture Post, Weekly Illustrated, and Paris Match
, among others. From the 1960s onward, Freund continued to write, and her reputation as an important portrait photographer grew with each successive exhibition. Gisèle Freund is now celebrated as one of the best portrait photographers of the twentieth century: Upon her death, "President Jacques Chirac praised her as 'one of the world's greatest photographers."
Ms. Freund was one of Europe's most prominent photographers and a pillar among French feminist intellectuals after settling in Paris in the 1930s. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, she became a student activist who battled the rise of Hitler's national socialism. She studied sociology in Frankfurt but was forced to flee in 1933, escaping as police were about to arrest her.
In Paris, Gisèle Freund pursued doctoral studies at the Sorbonne, where her enthusiasm for photography was met with skepticism. She met militant feminist writer Adrienne Monnier while browsing at La Maison des Amis du Livre
, Monnier's book shop on the Left Bank. The shop was frequented by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Valery. Monnier became her lifelong mentor and companion, introducing her to the Parisian intellectual set and encouraging her to pursue photography.
In 1935, Ms. Freund executed a widely acclaimed series of photographs, documenting the misery of British coal miners, and met Andre Malraux. Her portrait of the author of Man's Fate
--wrapped in a trench coat with a cigarette dangling from his mouth--is among her most well-known photographs. Her use of color clashed with the prevailing style of retouched black-and-white studio portraits, but she persevered, saying color "was closer to life."
Gisèle Freund specialized in conveying attitudes. She focused on hands, posture and clothing. Some of her most famous photographs appeared in Life
The Nazi invasion of France in 1940 interrupted her career. Gisèle Freund fled again, to southern France and later Argentina, where she worked until the war's end in 1945. She returned to France, where she earned an international reputation as the photographer of Jean Cocteau, De Beauvoir, Joyce, and Sartre, among others. Her works include Three Days With Joyce
, a collection of black-and-white photographs showing the Irish writer with friends and family, and correcting proofs of his novel Finnegan's Wake
. "Freund was involved in the lives of the artists and writers she photographed,"
said art critic Ann Cremin, who knew Ms. Freund. "She was more of a witness than a reporter."
In later years, Gisèle Freund became well-known in her adopted country, winning the National Grand Prize for Photography in 1980. She took the official photograph at the presidential inauguration of Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981. She gave up photography in the mid-1980s.
Source: Washington Post