“Gisèle Freund, the German-born photographer who died in 2000 at 91, is both famous and not famous enough,” writes Katherine Knorr in the New York Times. “She was sometimes chagrined to be best known for some of her portraits,” whose luminary subjects included artists, film stars, and writers. At the top, we have Freund’s 1938 shot of James Joyce with his grandson in Paris. Just below, her photograph of a pensive Walter Benjamin from that same year. At the bottom, her 1939 portrait of a smoking Virginia Woolf. (French novelist, theorist and, Minister for Cultural Affairs André Malraux also sported a cigarette in his 1935 portrait by Freund, an image which made it to a postage stamp in 1996, though with his smoke carefully removed.) Former President Jacques Chirac publicly praised Freund’s ability to “reveal the essence of beings through their expressions.” In Woolf’s case, Freund produced the being in question’s first-ever color portrait.
“[Freund] was an early adapter to color, in 1938, and her first exhibition was in fact a projection of color portraits given in Monnier’s book shop,” Knorr writes. She goes on to describe another exhibition, in 2011, that “similarly projects the portraits within its mock bookshop, turning the show into a guessing game since some of those photographed have enormously famous faces,” while others “are a lot of French intellectuals that most young French people today would not recognize.” While we naturally assume that you, as an Open Culture reader, recognize a fair few more French intellectuals than the average gallery-goer, we can’t help but focus on the fact that so many of the writers of whom Freund’s eye saw the definitive images — not just Joyce, Benjamin, and Woolf, but Beckett, Eliot, Hesse, the list goes on — became the defining writers of their era. Freund herself had just one question: “Explain to me why writers want to be photographed like stars,” she wrote, “and the latter like writers.”
Images by Freund have been collected in the book, Gisèle Freund: Photographs & Memoirs. You can also visit the Freund website to view a collection of portraits.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.