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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.