study of the history and critical theory of photography is complete
without a reading of Gisele Freund's 'Photography and Society.'
Freund died on 31 March this year (2000) at the age of 91. Her name
may not mean anything to many photographers, particularly in America,
as American writers have largely overlooked both her photography and
her contribution to photographic history. Being European, intellectual
and a socialist didn't help.
was born near Berlin on Nov 19, 1908; her family was wealthy and Jewish
and her father was a keen art collector, with an interest in the work
of photographer Karl Blossfeldt who was producing his close-up studies
exploring the forms in natural objects. Freund's father gave her a
Leica as a present for her high school graduation. 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.
One of her best-known early works shows one of the last political
street demonstrations in Germany before Hitler took power. The people
have taken over the street in a May Day rally in Frankfurt in 1932.
Freund shows them as a powerful mass with a common purpose, but not
as an undifferentiated crowd, concentrating our attention on the three
people in the foreground and in particular the young woman in the
centre of the frame.
studied sociology at the world famous Institute for Social Research
of Frankfurt University where she studied with Theodor Adorno and
Karl Mannheim as well as her tutor Norbert Elias, the leading social
theorists of the day. Her research was into the effect of the invention
and development of photography on the portrait, but before she could
complete it, she had to flee for her life as she heard that the police
were about to arrest her. In 1933, with Hitler taking over she was
doubly threatened as a socialist activist and also as a Jew, and managed
to escape to Paris, her negatives strapped around her body to get
them past the border guards.
she continued her research at the Sorbonne, making friends with a
number of the leading intellectual and literary figures, notably Walter
Benjamin, who had written his 'A Short History of Photography' some
two years earlier, though he is probably better known for his longer
essay from 1936, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.'
Benjamin was one of few who encouraged her research - most people
thought she was made to study photography - and he wrote appreciatively
about her doctoral thesis, which she presented in 1936.
Paris Left Bank bookshop 'La Maison des Amis des Livres,' Freund got
to know the owner, miltant feminist writer Adrienne Monnier, who became
a life-long friend. Monnier was the long-term companion of Sylvia
Beach, the expatriate American owner of the famous 'Shakespeare &
Company' bookshop and publisher of James Joyce. Through Monnier and
Beach, Freund met all the leading literary figures in Paris, and photographed
most of them. Her first exhibition, of colour portraits, was mounted
in Monnier's bookshop and included portraits of Louis Aragon, Simone
de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway,
Francois Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre and other leading literary figures.
the portraits by Berenice Abbott, who photographed many of these same
figures a few years earlier, Freund's pictures are direct and unposed,
generally making great use of natural light. Often Freund captures
a more dramatic gesture, expression or stance and her pictures are
usually more tightly cropped. Most of the well-known Freund portraits
are of men, while Abbott photographed many notable women. In 1935
Freund photographed Andre Malraux, author of 'La Condition Humaine,'
and many years later France's first Minister of Culture; the best
known of the pictures of him outdoors in a coat, romantic, dramatic
and just slightly dishevelled has a cigarette dangling from his lip.
In these more correct times a version without this is preferred.
in 1935, Freund travelled to the Newcastle area in the north of England
to photograph the living conditions in this distressed area at the
height of the Depression. When she added a second section to her thesis
to produce her seminal book 'Photography and Society' in the 1970s,
she used the treatment of this story in 'Life' as an example of how
the meaning of photographs can be changed by their juxtaposition with
Newcastle pictures show men and children in rags, and women 'with
ravaged faces (who) did not have the money to pay their rent or feed
their families.' This was the time of the Simpson scandal, when the
love affair of the British monarch with an American divorcee led to
his being forced to abdicate the throne by the moral outrage of the
English establishment. Opposite Freund's pictures of abject poverty
and desperation, 'Life' published a picture of the Queen Mother 'in
a lace dress, covered with jewels ... flanked by the two princesses,
Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, who were entrancing in their immaculate
dresses. The brutal contrast made any caption pointless. Mrs Simpson
was avenged in the eyes of liberal America.'
of the history and critical theory of photography is complete without
a reading of Gisele Freund's 'Photography and Society'. Her doctoral
thesis, published some forty years earlier had been the first thesis
ever published on photography as a social force, and the revised work
was still groundbreaking. Escape and after.
in 1940, Freund received a phone call from a friend warning her to
leave Paris immediately. Again she was fleeing from her life from
the Nazis, jumping on a train to the south of France with only her
bicycle. Eventually, thanks to the intervention of Malraux, she was
able to leave and find refuge in Argentina for the rest of the war.
to photograph in Argentina, producing work on Tierra del Fuego and
also a series of portraits of Eva Peron, then at the height of her
career. After the war she travelled to Mexico, becoming friends with
painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
around 1947 she had been involved with Robert Capa and the great photo
agency had founded, Magnum, which handled her pictures, and on her
return to France in 1952 her invited her to become a full member,
although she never became one of the key members of the 'family.'
Although there are several versions of the story of her relations
with Magnum and how she left, none of which show the organisation
in a good light.
at the height of cold war hysteria in the USA, Capa became worried
that her presence would result in Magnum being blacklisted in America
and she was thrown out of the organisation. Capa himself had just
completed a very expensive legal battle to recover his American passport
- vital for his work - which had been taken away from him the previous
year when someone (possibly a jilted lover) had reported, quite laughably,
that he was a Communist. Even Margaret Bourke-White had had similar
problems a couple of years earlier. So Freund's avowed political allegiances
- and the fact she was on the McCarthy blacklist - could have presented
a real problem for the organisation.
spent the rest of her life in her adopted country of France, living
in a book-lined Paris home. She worked on a number of books, including
'James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years' with V.B. Carleton, and several
autobiographical works. Towards the end of the '60s she had a major
retrospective show at the Paris Muse d'Art Moderne, and more recently
her photographs have been shown in Paris, Milan, Berlin, Hamburg,
Frankfurt and elsewhere. She was more or less the official photographer
of the French Socialist Party, and it was her official portrait of
Francois Mitterrand that appeared on almost every French street corner
during his long presidency. In 1980 she was awarded France's 'Grand
Prize for Photography.'
of these are currently out of print.
Published in USA 1985. 205 plates (50 color, the rest duotone black
and white) documenting her 50 year career, including portraits of
Walter Benjamin, Paul Valery, Colette, James Joyce, George Bernard
Shaw; Virginia Woolf, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel
Beckett, Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy.
Joyce In Paris: His Final Years
Freund, Gisele and Carleton, V. B. (preface by Simone de Beauvoir):
Published in 1965 includes b&w photographs of Joyce, his family and
friends, and Paris in the 30's Photography & Society Freund, Gisele:
Published in France in 1974, the English version appeared in the UK
and USA in 1980. Should be required reading for any photography course.
Days with Joyce
Freund, Gisele / Ginna, Peter St. J.
Remarkable photographs of James Joyce, with friends and family, correcting
proofs of his famous novel Finnegan's Wake.
World In My Camera
English version 1974.