Gisèle Freund

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Gisèle Freund (born Gisela Freund; November 19, 1908 Schöneberg – March 31, 2000, Paris) was a German-born French photographer, famous for her documentary photography and portraits of writers and artists. Her best-known book is Photographie et société (1974) about the uses and abuses of the photographic medium. 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).[1]

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 Schoneberg near 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 Gisele her first camera, a Voigtlander 6x9 in 1925 and Leica camera as a present for her graduation in 1929.[2]

In 1931, Freund studied sociology and art history at Albert-Ludwigs-Universtadt Freiburg, Breisgau, Germany; and from 1932-33 she studied at the Institute for Social, Sciences, University of Frankfurt under under Theodor W. Adorno, Karl Mannheim and Norbert Elias.[3] 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. In 1933, with the rise of Hitler, Freund was forced to flee Germany as a socialist activist and as a Jew. She escaped to Paris, her negatives strapped around her body to get them past the border guards.

In 1935 Andre Malraux invited Freund to take pictures of the people participating in the First International Congress in Defence of Culture in Paris, where she was introduced to many of the notable French artists of her day.

Freund continued her studies in Paris at the Sorbonne, where she received a Ph.D. in Sociology and Art in 1936.[4] 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. 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.[5] Monnier published Freund's doctoral dissertation and "introduced [her] to the artists and writers who would prove her most captivating subjects."[6]

Gisèle Freund's gravestone at Montparnasse Graveyard, Paris.

On June 10, 1940,[7] Freund escaped Paris for Unoccupied 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."[8]

In 1942, with the help of André Malraux, Freund fled to Buena 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."[9]

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."[10] She also founds a relief action committee for French artists and becomes a spokesperson for Free France.

In 1947, Freund became a member of 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; she was forced to break ties with Magnum. In 1950, her photocoverage of an bejewelled Eva Peron caused a diplomatic stir between the United States and Argentina, and upset many of Peron's supporters. She moved to Mexico and became friends with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Luis Orozco.[11] In 1953, she moves back to Paris permanently.

Notable work[edit]

In 1936 Freund photographed the effects of the Depression in England for Life Magazine. Freund's dissertation was published in book form by Adrienne Monnier (1892–1955). One of her best-known early works shows one of the last political street demonstrations in Germany before Hitler took power.

In 1938, Freund had the opportunity to photograph James Joyce in Paris through her connections with Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach. In her notebooks, she describes a taxi crash after one such photo-session which caused her cameras to crash to the ground. She called Joyce and said, "Mr. Joyce, you damned my photos — you put some kind of a bad Irish spell on them and my taxi crashed. I was almost killed and your photos are ruined”.[12] Time Magazine used one of these photos for its cover on May 8, 1939. The series of photographs would eventually be published in 1965 in James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years by Freund and V. B. Carleton and a Preface by Simone de Beauvoir.[13]

Books published by Gisele Freund[edit]

  • "La photographie en France au dix-neuvieme siècle" (1936)
  • "France" (1945)
  • "Mexique precolombien" (1954)
  • "James Joyce in Paris. His final years" (1965)
  • "Le monde et ma camera" (1970)
  • "Photographie et societe" (1974)
  • "Memoires de l’Oeil" (1977)
  • "Trois Jours avec Joyce" (1982)
  • "Itineraires" (1985)
  • "Portrait" (1991)

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Meeker, Carlene. Jewish Women's Archive
  2. ^ Stiftung Stadtmuseum Catalogue for "Gisele Freund: A Revisit to Berlin, 1957-1962"
  3. ^ Zox-Weaver, Annalisa. "Gisele Freund." Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography. Ed. Lynne Warren. (564-566).
  4. ^ Zox-Weaver, Annalisa
  5. ^ The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne Monnier. viii
  6. ^ Zox-Weaver
  7. ^ Freund, Gisele. The World in My Camera
  8. ^ The World in My Camera
  9. ^ Meeker, Carlene. "Gisele Freund."
  10. ^ Letter to Verna B. Carleton, January 7, 1965
  11. ^ Stiftung Stadtmuseum Catalogue for "Gisele Freund: A Revisit to Berlin, 1957-1962"
  12. ^
  13. ^