When I met Gisèle Freund, in 1988, she was about to celebrate her eightieth birthday. I had come to her Parisian apartment in rue Lalande, near the Montparnasse cemetery. She was wearing a bright pink vest and spoke enthusiastically about superconductors: she was enchanted by every new discovery (“I devour anything that has to do with inventions”). What struck me, in addition to her alto voice and casual elegance, was that she looked exactly like her portraits. She didn’t look like a picture, there was no gap between her in real life and her reproduction on paper. She was one and the same person, there was no mirror effect, as if she had miraculously escaped the very idea of copy. She was inimitable—in any case, that’s what I thought—and still do.
This point of view might seem trivial if, throughout her life of adventures and commitments, Gisèle Freund (1908–2000) had not immortalized some of the best-known writers of the twentieth century, such as Simone de Beauvoir (sitting on a bright red sofa, in 1947) or Colette (in 1939, working in bed, which seemed like a good reason to major in literature). I was actually there to see that: the Vidéothèque de Paris held a small exhibition of Freund’s literary portraits. All her sitters were very expressive, even the older ones, as if belonging to the reigning family of writers, more withdrawn than they are today and less disheveled, had allowed them, perhaps thanks to the color film that brought out their best, to openly frame their solitude. If you were a writer “admired or esteemed” by Gisèle Freund, thanks to the photo you could claim the honor of being part of her album. During the shooting session, preferably in the writers’ homes, she would “never ask them to pose or do anything,” only sometimes “made suggestions about what to wear: avoid dark clothes, black makes you look pale, it’s not good for self-esteem.”
What was she interested in? “In language: in the personality, in the ideas. Photography was a way of getting closer rather than taking by surprise. If I were to talk about writing for photography, I would say that, unconsciously, Nadar was my influence. He too was drawn to faces and hands.”
Nadar may seem like an odd choice for a politically engaged student, who had to flee Berlin and the Nazis in 1933. Freund was “a German woman of the left” who brought to the medium the keen eye of a sociologist, a viewpoint translated in 1936 into a landmark work, La Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle: étude de sociologie et d’esthétique [Photography in France in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Sociology and Aesthetics], published by her bookseller friend Adrienne Monnier (and reissued by Christian Bourgois in 2011). In it, Freund describes her fascination with Nadar (1820–1910), “the first person to rediscover the human face by means of the camera. His lens forges an intimate relationship with physiognomy. What Nadar is after is not just the outward beauty of a face; he seeks above all to bring out every person’s characteristic expression.”
And so Nadar is her point of reference; and in a way, Gisèle Freund has come to fill his shoes, both with her incredibly rich, saturated colors and her intellectual proximity to her sitters. Not only had she read all their books, but she never let herself be intimidated by them, she ignored their superegos. Agathe Gaillard, who exhibited Freund in her legendary gallery in the spring of 1980, summed it up in her own way: “She approaches her models—great writers and artists—without hiding her admiration; she hangs around them without trying to establish a personal relationship, without measuring up to them, as if they were already statues of themselves, and that’s what we see in the photos, their definitive statue. Very often, whatever their age, she has captured their definitive image.” (from Mémoires d’une galérie, Gallimard).
But what do the writers themselves have to say about this? Let’s take the venerable Philippe Sollers, who is very comfortable with his image. Sollers is not averse to being photographed; he even has a “technique,” which consists in overexposing himself, and in thinking “about very specific things when photographed: a tune, or a formula, or a poem, or an aphorism, because I want to pour that into the photograph, like a fluid. There are very few good portraits of me because I also manage to take care of that! I don’t come across as a serious person, but underneath my devil-may-care attitude, I have my ways….” He was taken with Gisèle Freund, who in turn adored James Joyce (“[Joyce] was magic, he made her forget her camera”) and Virginia Woolf. “Gisèle was tireless, a real ball of fire, living in a permanent state of excitement.”
While an astonishing silence prevails in her portraits of writers or painters, we find this “state of excitement” in Gisèle Freund’s many news stories, for example, those that this intrepid woman did in Latin America. She was then a member of the Magnum agency, no feminist haven by any means: Freund was the only woman there in 1947 and, as she confided to Rauda Jamis in a fascinating collection of interviews published by Éditions des Femmes in 1991, it was Robert Capa who dismissed her in 1954. We witness her obstinacy to oppose any idea of destiny, her determination to be a free woman, her exile, her pain at feeling like “a foreigner,” and her joy when she finally obtained her French identity card: it was in 1983, two years after she had taken the official portrait of François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, at the Élysée Palace library.
I have not seen Gisèle Freund again after my visit in the winter of 1988. Since her death, books have been coming out about her work which is now preserved at the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC). I still think of her, of her rigorous, sometimes even austere writing. It is quite common these days to turn writers into fashion models proud of the weight of their books. More than a question of poor taste, I see this as giving little credit to writers (and to artists, in general) who thus become, in the moment of the image, mere shadows of themselves.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
To learn more about Gisèle Freund:
Photography and Society, David R. Godine, 1980
James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965
The World Found in My Camera, Dial Press, 1974
Gisèle Freund: Photographer, Harry N. Abrams, 1985
Richard Ellmann, Three Days with Joyce, with photographs by Gisèle Freund, Persea Books, 1967
For another “exercise in admiration”:
Chantal Thomas, Pour Roland Barthes (Seuil, collection “Points Essais”), featuring a portrait of Barthes by Sophie Bassouls on the cover