Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gisèle Freund

 Gisèle Freund, Self portrait, early 1930s

Gisèle Freund (1908-2000) was born in 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. From an early age, Julius took her to art museums, and at home she met talented painters. 

 Max Slevogt, Portrait of Julius Freund, 1925

She studied sociology and art history at the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) in Frankfurt am Main under Karl Mannheim, Max Horkheimer, and Norbert Elias. During this period Freund joined the communist 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. 

 Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin à la Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, 1937

Freund entered at the Sorbonne, receiving her PhD in 1936. In the mid-1930s, Freund played chess with Walter Benjamin at a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Also the Bibliothèque Nationale connected them. Benjamin did research there for his now famous Passagenwerk (Arcades Project), Freund wrote her dissertation on early French photography, La Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle, a metrialistic account of the origins of photography (published in the 1970s in French and German under the title Photographie et société).

Gisèle Freund, Rue de la Pluie, Newcastle-on-Tyne, 1935

In 1936 Freund photographed the effects of the Depression in England for the Life magazine. Freund's dissertation was first 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, owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore

 Gisèle Freund, Norbert Elias, Paris, 1935

Before the outbreak of the war, Freund made hundreds of portraits of artists and writers. Her subjects included among others her former teacher Norbert Elias (above), 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, Paul Valéry and G.B. Shaw ("Above all, don't cut off my beard!", Shaw told her). 

 Gisèle Freund, George Bernard Shaw, Londres, 1939

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 magazine Sur, the most important literary magazine of its time in Latin America.

 Gisèle Freund, The last islands before Cape Horn, Patagonia, 1943

Later Freund moved on to Mexico. For years she traveled up and down through the countries of Latin America. During this period she photographed Eva Perón and also became acquainted with the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. To Mexico Freund was invited by the poet and writer Alfonso Reys, originally to give a lecture on French literature. Eventually her stay took two years. In 1950 Life published her critical photoreportage on Eva Peron, which drew the attention of the FBI and four years later she was blacklisted. 

 Gisèle Freund, Le lever d'Evita Peron, Buenos Aires, 1950

In 1944-45 Freund was a photojournalist for the France Libre propaganda services. From 1947 to 1954 she worked for Magnum Photos. 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."  

Gisèle Freund, Simone de Beauvoir, 1948
In the 1970s, Freund traveled in Japan, the Near East, and the United States. Following the election of François Mitterand to the presidency in 1981, Freund became Mitterrand's official photographer. 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. You can see more photos of her here in my Flickr set.


  1. Thank you for this succinct gloss of Freund's life and career. Not sure that her connection with Latin America/Mexico is well known -- just my private perception. Again, thank you for this post and for your blog.

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