Gisèle Freund was a German-born French photographer and photojournalist, born in Schöneberg District, Berlin famous for her documentary photography and portraits of writers and artists.
In 1931, Freund studied sociology and art history at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Breisgau, Germany. 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 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 Jewish. 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 Defence 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.
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 her 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 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, Jewish, and a Socialist, Freund feared for her life. In 1942, with the help of André Malraux, who told his friends, 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.”
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 photocoverage of an bejewelled 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 Jose Luis Orozco.
She moved back to Paris permanently in 1953; she published her best-known book, ‘Photographie et société’ in 1974; in 1977, she became President of the French Association of Photographers, and in 1981, she took During her lifetime she undertook more than 80 assignments for magazines including Life and Time etc. In 1983, she was awarded the highest decoration in France: the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. In 1991, she was the first photographer to be given a retrospective at Centrepompidou. Gisele Freund died in Paris in 2000.
Asked why her photographs were so perceptive, she famously replied: ‘When you do not like human beings, you cannot make good portraits.’
Portraits of artists and writers