A ‘Writers’ Photographer,’ Back in Focus
Where are the pictures? This is the question many newcomers ask upon entering the apartment of Gisele Freund--a founding member of the Magnum Photo Agency and one of the most renowned portraitists of this century.
But the truth is that, despite occupying the top floor of her modest apartment in the 14th arrondissement of Paris for more than 40 years, there is not one photograph hanging on the wall and, for that matter, few traces that Freund has spent her life with pictures. Books line most walls and many corners; Freund readily admits that it is books that interest her most these days.
But then books have been a persistent passion. Literature gave Freund her start in photography, and it is her portraits of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett that have brought her most lasting fame.
“It was the money I got from the Simone de Beauvoir photos that gave me the down payment for this place,” Freund recalls. The German immigrant did benefit greatly from the portraits of her French friend taken when De Beauvoir won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1952. While the shy De Beauvoir hid from the paparazzi, she allowed Freund to photograph her. “That day there was a line of newspaper people going down my steps,” Freund says with a laugh. “I couldn’t print the pictures fast enough.”
Freund’s pictures are again getting much attention, but these pictures are of another friend, Andre Malraux. Paris is in the midst of Malraux mania; the remains of the writer-turned-cultural-minister entered the sacred Pantheon on Nov. 23. Such a move reflects the magnitude of the Malraux legend in this country, a crucial part of which is due to Freund’s memorable photographs that have stamped the image we hold of this passionate figure.
There have been few studies on Malraux that do not include at least one Freund portrait. Currently two of her portraits of Malraux--one of him pounding his fist at the 1935 International Conference of Writers for the Defense of Culture and another of him on her roof--are pasted to the walls of subways and kiosks around town. A more comprehensive exhibition of her Malraux portraits is on view at the newly renovated Jeu de Paume Museum on the edge of the Tuileries garden.
“Oh, Malraux, I first knew him when I was very young,” Freund says. “He was working as an editor in one of the big publishing houses in France, and we remained very good friends. In the beginning, I was asked to photograph him, and he came over to my apartment. I’ll never forget it because I had just divided my apartment in two, and I painted one side blue and one side white. I thought it would be a good background for my portraits, but it was nothing short of ludicrous.”
Barely able to contain her girlish laughter she continues, “I thought it might make for an interesting picture, so I placed Malraux in between the two segments, but I never sold one of those pictures. They looked ridiculous! No, I had to go back, and that time I took him outside on the terrace.”
From that second session came the legendary photos of Malraux standing in the wind with his patented far-away expression. Recently, this same image has been immortalized by the French postal service, although on the stamp version, the defiant cigarette in Freund’s photograph has been removed from his lips to better conform to Malraux’s image as cultural minister rather than young writer.
“Toward the end of his life, he became a minister for De Gaulle,” Freund says. “At one point, he even asked me to work for him, but I refused. I never wanted to be involved in government. Malraux understood, though.”
When she reminisces about her portraits of the Paris literati, one gets the impression she is simply rehashing memories of old friends or family. But friendship was often the origin of these portraits. When her Jewish roots, as well as her activities as a student activist, forced her to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, she came to Paris.
Soon after, she was befriended by two literary legends, Andrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach. Their bookstores, Les Amis des Livres and Shakespeare & Co. on the Rue de l’Odeon, were meccas for literature lovers, and their legacy for convivial book learning and patronage still lives today.
Freund, at the time, was working on a book of her own, her doctoral thesis in sociology. Later published as “Photography in Society,” the work remains the first in-depth academic study of photography. Freund admits writing was her first true love, and today she still considers herself a sociologist first; her camera was simply the tool with which she conducted her research.
If it was her intellectual background that helped open the door to such an erudite milieu, it was her intimacy with the participants that allowed her to provide us with such a privileged view of this often closed circle.
“Sartre, De Beauvoir, Malraux, Breton, these were my friends. I had read their works before I photographed them, and before taking any portraits we would often discuss their works. . . . This was often essential to gaining their confidence. I tell many young photographers today to do the same thing, but so often they don’t want to read about their subjects, they just want to take pictures. For me, at least, studying my subjects first, and knowing them personally was essential to taking a good picture.”
In fact, in a very unconscious manner, Freund was contributing to the “extended personal document” tradition in photography--an approach in which the photographer becomes an active participant in the lives of the subject--long before it became popular in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In time, authors came knocking on her door wanting to be photographed by the “writers’ photographer.” But it was not until the photography boom of the 1970s and ‘80s that Freund derived any significant income from these portraits.
For most of her life, she coupled this work with the more marketable one of reporter-at-large. Her travels took her to destinations as diverse as England, Argentina, Patagonia and the South Pole. Long after her arrangement with the Magnum Agency withered, she continued to organize these journeys from Paris. “I’d get up early every morning and read the papers in search of good ideas.”
So where are the pictures from all those years trekking around? “Ah, you know,” she reflects, “I don’t need to see my pictures on my walls. I already know what they look like and, you know, I never wanted to have an exhibit in my own apartment.”
Among the many books of Gisele Freund’s photographs are “Itineraires” (Albin Michel, 1985), “Le Monde et Ma Camera, Paris” (De Noel, 1970) and “James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years” (Harcourt Brace, 1965).