Photographer to '30s Literary Stars

How Gisèle Freund Turned Writers Into Celebrities

Who’s Afraid of Gisele Freund? The photographer profiled many literary figures, including this shot of Virginia Woolf.
gisele freund
Who’s Afraid of Gisele Freund? The photographer profiled many literary figures, including this shot of Virginia Woolf.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published December 27, 2011, issue of December 30, 2011.
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From James Joyce to Virginia Woolf, camera-shy European writers were captured on film in the 1930s by German Jewish photographer Gisèle Freund. These psychologically revealing images, in vividly tight close-up — as if the viewer were crammed into an elevator next to the great writer — are enough to guarantee Freund, who died in 2000 at age 91, a measure of immortality. Yet a new Paris exhibit that runs until January 29 at the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint-Laurent — “Gisèle Freund, An Eye to Borders, Paris 1933-1940” — suggests that Freund is a more complex creative spirit than has been hitherto conceded.

Exhibit curators Catherine Thieck and Olivier Corpet explain in two profusely illustrated publications that Freund was deceptively dismissive about her own work, claiming that photographers cannot be artists, only “translators,” and likened her own quest to preserve images of writers as a kind of butterfly collection driven by her own frustrated literary ambitions. Yet, far from being an unreflective amateur hobbyist, Freund had in fact produced a well thought out thesis at the Sorbonne, “Photography in 19th Century France: an Essay on Sociology and Esthetics,” recently reprinted by Les éditions Christian Bourgois.

Born Sophie Gisela Freund in Berlin in 1908, she was no mere avocational shutterbug, using the camera as a mechanical autograph book. Freund grew up in a privileged, intensely artistic, Jewish bourgeois family atmosphere. Her father, the noted art collector Julius Freund, assembled works by German Impressionist painters from Max Liebermann to Max Slevogt; the latter painted an oft-reproduced 1925 oil portrait of the elder Freund. Although his daughter’s first love was literature — notably by Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht — after Julius gave her a Leica camera as a gift for her 18th birthday, Gisèle became smitten with the device.

Her attraction to photography was confirmed by her university studies in Frankfurt, with such luminaries as Karl Mannheim, the Hungarian Jewish founder of the sociology of knowledge, and German Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias. Noticing that Freund always carried a camera, Elias suggested that she study the meaning of images as part of her coursework. She followed the suggestion and in 1934 took a photo of Elias in Paris, pressed against a wall with a pained expression, as if symbolically waiting for a firing squad to arrive. This image seems to allude to the agony of exile, since by the year it was taken, both photographer and subject had been obliged to flee their homeland.

Indeed, with Hitler’s arrival to power in 1933, many of Freund’s Jewish professors were forced into exile. After photographing some Nazi street violence against anti-fascist demonstrators, Freund also left her homeland for Paris in that year. These German street scenes, along with her 1930s photo reportages of the Paris stock exchange and related subjects, usually employed sweeping perspectives of crowds of people. In these images, Freund’s extended visual scope was akin to those pictures of history in process made by the pioneering 1920s German Jewish news photographer Erich Salomon, who would be murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. In Paris, Freund would soon exchange this fly-on-the-wall perspective for more intimate views of cultural celebrities.


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