Gisèle Freund

Every retrospective has its surprises, but in the case of photographer Gisèle Freund’s “Itinéraires” (Itineraries) at the Centre Pompidou, these have less to do with unknowns than with knowns. Like modern-day icons, her five-plus decades of writers’ and artists’ portraits are so familiar and so indissociable from their subjects that they have virtually eclipsed their creator. There is, for example, the classic image of André Malraux, eternalized at age 34 with a cigarette between his lips and hair blowing in the wind; or James Joyce at home in his plaid tie and velvet smoking jacket; or the (exceptionally) close-cropped head of Virginia Woolf, silver-haired, marble skinned, totally lost in wistfulness, two years before her death in 1941. Or, in the extreme, the official portrait of President François Mitterand (as man of letters, obviously), which has been hanging in every public building in France since his 1981 election.

If these photographs have come to represent the quintessential “Malraux” or “Woolf” or “Mitterand” in our visual memories—rather than the quintessential “Freund”—this is exactly how Freund intended them. “Once the portrait is done,” she comments in the book of interviews published to coincide with the retrospective, “the photographer should disappear modestly behind the image. The important thing is the photograph, not the person behind the lens.” Throughout her sixty-year career (a first photo essay, on the Paris stock market, appeared under a pseudonym in the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung in 1931) she has refused to consider herself an artist.

The other label she has adopted, and one that lends particular coherence to a body of work much more vast and disparate than her collection of portraits, is the Magnum catchphrase, “concerned photographer.” In fact, Freund was the first woman member of the photo agency, for which she worked from 1948 to 1954, but her Magnum-style “concern” had been manifest from the time she fled from her native Berlin to Paris, in 1933, with a roll of film intended to alert the French to the rise of Nazism in Germany. By 1935—after completing a sociology dissertation at the Sorbonne on photography she was working for the newly created Life magazine, which published her photo essay on poverty in northern England in one of its first issues. During the German Occupation, she wound up in Buenos Aires, which became her base for travel-cum-reportage throughout Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Ecuador. During the Magnum years, she served as their Latin American correspondent, producing, among other things, the 1950 Life scoop on Eva Perón that not only forced Freund to leave the country but caused a diplomatic incident between Argentina and the U.S.

Freund’s “concern” also manifested itself in human-interest subjects, such as the candid series on readers at the Bibliothèque Nationale (for the 1937 Exposition Universelle) or the 1953 study of mediums, astrologers, palm readers, and other practitioners of the occult. Like the topical subjects, these glimpses of daily-life-with-a-difference are at once an extended social chronicle and the expression of Freund’s own sensibility, with its push and pull of curiosity and reserve and its pervasive irony.

But the same is true of the portraits as well. With few exceptions, they were done at her request and her expense, because, she explains, these were her friends, or friends of friends, or people whose work she knew and admired (as is amply and magnificently demonstrated by “Frida Kahlo et ses chiens” [Frida Kahlo and her dogs, 1952], a selection of 40 photographs from Freund’s visits to Mexico exhibited concurrently at the Galerie de France). There are no studio shots and no retouching (President Mitterrand included). Poses are rare: subjects appear in their own environments, most often lost in their thoughts, and frequently in their shadows, and surrounded by so much detail that the portraits become, as Freund says, “veritable reportage.” For all their singularity, they present the collective image of an era, and for all of Freund’s deference to her subjects, they are marked by her enthusiasm, her ethic, her expatriate’s eye. In these formidable balancing acts between snapshot, psychoanalysis, and social fresco, the photographer has hardly disappeared behind the image, but into it.

Miriam Rosen