Gisèle Freund (1908 – 2000)
Born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1908, Gisèle was given her first camera in 1925.
A committed socialist, Gisèle studied sociology and art history first in Germany and then at the Sorbonne after fleeing to Paris in 1933. Together with her good friend Walter Benjamin, they joined a circle of prominent artists centred around Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company and the publisher Adrienne Monnier. Her PhD thesis “La photographie en France au dix-neuvieme siècle,” was published in 1936 by Monnier and through her, Gisèle was introduced to the literary figures who were to become her subjects.
She went on more than 80 photojournalism assignments, primarily for Life and Time Magazine, over the next few years, including the iconic 1938/9 colour photostudies of James Joyce, Colette and Virginia Woolf. Her ability to connect with her artistic subjects allowed her to photograph them in unguarded moments – Malraux on a rooftop, Woolf with her dog – capturing candid moments became her trademark.
In 1942, she was again forced to flee the war, this time to Argentina, where she became the cultural attachée for Free France. After 9 years there, working for Magnum and Life and producing the notorious 1950 portraits of a pampered Evita Peron, she was blacklisted. She returned to Paris via Mexico where she lived with and photographed Frieda Kahlo and Diego Riviera for two years.
Freund published Photographie et société (1974), exploring the development of photography, from the 19th century portraiture to photojournalism and mass media and propaganda.
She became president of the French Federation of Creative Photographers in 1977, and was one of the first women to receive the Grand Prix National des Arts (1980). Freund received the Chevalier de la Légion d’ Honneur in 1983.
Freund’s estate is managed through the l’Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC), Paris.
By Paula Vellet