What are the mind-boggling personality traits

Read on your face like a book

"On the day when I'm no longer curious, you can bury me there, nothing is wrong with me. As long as you cannot think of new things, as long as you are not interested in new things in art and literature and in everything that can still be found beautiful is no longer worth living there. "

When she made this commitment, the great photographer and sociologist Gisèle Freund was already 77 years old. Life was worth living for them for a long, inexhaustible period, almost a century.

Born on December 19, 1908 in Berlin-Schöneberg, buried in March 2000 in her adopted home Paris at the age of 91. And Gisèle Freund, née Sophia Gisela Freund, remained curious to the last. She drew from the multicolored material of life like from a never-ending cornucopia in her own unmistakable way: courageous, curious, stubborn, impatient, spirited and very direct. Authenticity was one of her central personality traits as well as the basic yardstick of her work as a photographer.

"Gisèle Freund was amazing, I can't say anything else: a small, still attractive woman, but with a vitality that almost overwhelmed us younger people, an energy that was instantly transmitted, an infectious energy. She talked almost continuously, but what she said was captivating. She was a gifted storyteller, had a way of seeing things so vividly, so succinctly that you would enjoy her performances - it would be said today - like a stimulating evening at the theater. "

For example, Klaus Honnef, publicist, image expert and curator of her first major photo exhibition in Germany in 1977. When they met, Gisèle Freund was already in her seventies.

The daughter from the Jewish upper middle class in Berlin with a direct connection to art researched and worked in a radius and with an intensity that is rarely found in a loner - because that was Gisèle Freund in the deepest part of her heart: on three continents, in four languages ​​and in contact with the greatest artists, writers and intellectuals of the 20th century.

"My father was a very big collector and a specialist in romantic art, which I wasn't. But I learned a lot from art as a child. No Sunday went by that we haven't been to a museum. And mine There were many artists at home. "

However, the parents considered the high school graduation and university studies to be absolutely superfluous for the older daughter, in contrast to the three years older brother. So the young Gisela had to show cunning and assertiveness even in her young girl days in order to finally be able to embark on an academic career. She actually wanted to be a writer. But the National Socialists thwarted her plans.

On the evening of May 30, 1933, the politically active sociology student flees to Paris by night train, almost at the very last minute. Gisèle Freund's description of the border control in the wagon illustrates the fearlessness the 24-year-old already demonstrated in the highly precarious situation of her escape:

They came into the compartment: The papers! Where are you travelling to? - I am a student and I am writing a doctoral thesis on a French subject. I've only been away for three months. - Open your suitcase. Aha, open a camera! I obeyed. They found nothing in the camera.

They checked my passport with suspicious eyes and asked puffily: Are you a Jew? Without losing my composure, in the cutting tone my father could have when he was angry, and with the self-control my mother always demonstrated, I replied: I am a Jew? Have you ever seen a Jew named Gisela?

Heil Hitler, they exclaimed, apologized, clapped their heels and disappeared.


The emigration to France directed the professional interests of the budding sociologist back into the world of the fine arts via a small revolutionary apparatus, the Leica. Because in Paris she met the famous bookseller Adrienne Monnier, who became her muse, mother and mentor. Monnier is in contact with the entire intellectual Parisian elite of the pre-war period, whom Gisèle encountered in this way and whom she will later - mostly for the first time - portray photographically.

When the time of the German occupation began in France, Gisèle Freund continued her career in England, South America, Mexico and the USA. She collects orders for photo reports, among others for the magazines "Time" and "Life", later also for the famous agency MAGNUM. The young expellee will of course return to Paris again and again. It has become their new home. Here, at the Sorbonne, Gisèle Freund will also perform her first great pioneering achievement: the doctoral thesis on the history of photography in the 19th century, because in the thirties there was hardly any scientific knowledge about the new even in the French state library Medium of photography.

The autodidact will keep one fundamental decision throughout her life. She makes:

Reporting to make money and portraits for my own pleasure.

In doing so, she develops an unmistakable feeling for the signs of the times:

Photography had such a colossal success immediately after its discovery because it made the portrait. And the time was there too, because until the French Revolution, when the nobility ruled, there was an ancestral gallery. But the citizen could not afford that, it was far too expensive. And when photography came up, he was able to build up an ancestral gallery and own himself for little money.

On the occasion of her 100th birthday, today on December 19th, two publications have been published, each paying tribute to Gisèle Freund's path as an unconventional photo pioneer in a specific way. The large-format illustrated book "Gisèle Freund, Photographien und Kollegen" published by Verlag Schirmer / Mosel is a new edition of the autobiographical monograph first published in 1985.

The book, with more than 200 black-and-white and color photos from five decades, was compiled by the author himself and, according to the publisher, has remained unchanged in this form.

It brings together a few of the photojournalist's South American landscape shots - which, by the way, have not yet been adequately appreciated -, excerpts from her socially committed reportage work and, above all, a representative part of her famous artist portraits. The gallery of great minds, whom Gisèle Freund looked in the eyes and often behind the forehead, ranges from Simone de Beauvoir and Walter Benjamin to Colette, Marie Bonaparte, James Joyce and Frida Kahlo to Malraux, Evita Peron and Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf - a unique picture book of European and transatlantic intellectual history of the 20th century.

The portraits are accompanied by informative information on the time and place of origin, as well as insights into the theory of photography. This is all the more important now that all of Gisèle Freund's photo-theoretical publications are out of print on the German-speaking book market.

In this context, the exceptional photographer expressly formulates the demands on her own work:

The photographer has to read a face like a book. He also has to decipher what is between the lines. To be a good photographer, one has to understand how to translate the shapes and their spirit into light and shadow.

Noteworthy in the historical documentation from the Schirmer / Mosel Verlag are above all the statements on the stylistic peculiarities of Gisèle Freund, who was proud all her life of never - as she says - retouching or making stylized studio recordings.

In fact, she was a gifted researcher in the landscapes of the human face; her great passion was the unique physiognomy of the individual. To see what is truly authentic behind the mask and to document it in the picture was the immodest goal of all of her work. Her mental attitude towards the portrayed sounds as simple as it is mysterious:

The photographer should modestly disappear behind the portrait. The photographer is a means to an end. The decisive moment when he presses the button I cannot explain either, that is what is in me that I take the picture at this moment and not in another.

The biographical supplement to the photo catalog weighing more than one and a half kilos is Bettina de Cosnac's new biography "Gisèle Freund. A life". The Franco-German correspondent was also born in Berlin - a small geographical parallel - and has lived in Paris for several years. Her research on the present portrait spanned - as she reports - over almost 20 years and seven countries on three continents.

The author leaves the eventful life of her protagonist in strict chronological order and illuminates their contacts and expressions of life down to the smallest linguistic and biographical details. In doing so, she makes extensive use of private correspondence, some of which has not been published, and personal conversations with Gisèle Freund's former contemporaries in order to get as close as possible to her main character.

Strangely enough, that just doesn't seem to work. Although we as readers learn a vast number of biographical details and amusing anecdotes and certainly gain a significant part of new knowledge, the person Gisèle Freund remains strangely remote and cool behind the mask of eloquence.

An undeniable shortcoming, however, is the fact that Bettina de Cosnac hardly deals with Freund's fundamental work on the theory of photography in her nearly three hundred-page portrait.

You don't get really close to the idiosyncratic nature of the photo artist in this biography. But who knows, maybe this is partly due to the protagonist herself, who, as testimonials show, was not necessarily characterized by warmth of the heart. After all, she was a displaced person in exile, whose singular march to fame and honor was long, rocky and lonely in places.

As an intellectually brilliant trailblazer, Gisèle Freund's rank remains undisputed in the top positions. With her lively, critical mind, she was far-sighted enough to clearly recognize the abuse potential of her profession in her day:

The greatest danger is that photography, which is supposed to be the reproduction of reality, can be completely falsified, that there are a thousand ways to show the photographs as the person concerned wants to publish, that they have become a means for those who dominate us to support their ideas. That's all.

Gisèle Freund: Photographs and memories
With autobiographical texts and a foreword by Christian Caujolle
Verlag Schirmer / Mosel Munich, 1985/2008, 224 pages, 49.80 euros

Bettina de Cosnac: Gisèle friend. One life
Arche Literatur Verlag Zurich / Hamburg, 2008, 297 pages, 24.00 euros