Portraits of cultural celebrities. The casualness of her photographs was an illusion
Gis`ele Freund: Photographer, text by Gis`ele Freund; foreword by Christian Caujolle. Fifty color, 155 black and white prints. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 223 pp. $45. ``Most writers hate their faces,'' Gis`ele Freund observed. We might believe it of T. S. Eliot, whose reticently handsome features Miss Freund photographed in 1939, but surely W. H. Auden, Andr'e Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Paul Val'ery -- all Freund's sitters -- were not given to such ordinary vanity. Still, Freund should know. She was unofficial photographer to the artistic and intellectual elite of the last half century.
Neither sycophant nor harsh verist, Freund worked with her subjects to create a public persona, often for book jackets or magazine illustrations. She deplored the prettified soft-focus portraits that were standard for photographs of writers in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead, she helped to revive an older convention, that of the 19th-century photographer, (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) Nadar, who coached and coaxed his sitters into media personalities. Freund successfully transformed a writer's appearance into a visual metaphor encapsulating both the writer's work and legend.
The apparent casualness of her portraits, like that of Nadar's work, is an illusion. These are mostly indoor shots, which required cooperation. Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Andr'e Gide, Hermann Hesse, Mary McCarthy, Tennessee Williams, and Katherine Anne Porter all submitted to the artificiality of preliminary poses and the intense heat of portable lights. They cannot be said to have been caught unawares. A `face like a map'
Freund's images of Vita Sackville-West, Robert Lowell, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Koestler have entered the collective memory. Her W. H. Auden, photographed in 1963, is no less than ``the famous poet with the face like a map of physical geography, crisscrossed and river-run and creased with lines'' that Stephen Spender evoked in his memorial address a decade later. Her Cocteau, lean and pale as a wraith, is what Freund later called the ``symbolic essence of an individual.''
Among Freund's best literary portraits are those of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. ``Gis`ele Freund: Photographer'' includes some of the black and white photo reportage work on Joyce she did for Life, along with the fine color photographs taken for a Time magazine cover in 1939. Oddly enough, it does not include the portrait she made for the dust jacket of the first edition of ``Finnegans Wake.'' For Time, Freund revealed a Joyce who is at once an avant-garde prince and fidgety victim of illness and private despair.
Freund found in Virginia Woolf a similar shattered courtliness. ``Frail, luminous, she was the very incarnation of her prose,'' Freund recalled. The sometimes criticized wan color of many of Freund's photographs, including those of Joyce and Woolf, was not entirely intentional. Freund, who fled the Nazis once in Germany and again in occupied Paris, could not send her German-manufactured film there for proper processing. Nevertheless, like old Technicolor movies, the quality of the color evokes the timeless presence of cultural celebrities.
Freund's portraits of writers may be the most famous of her photographs, but her portraits of painters and critics are often compelling as well. Among the best in this collection are Marcel Duchamp, more world-weary than any droopy pre-Raphaelite maiden, and Henri Matisse, a dour presence amidst the opulence of the paintings crowding his Paris apartment.
``Gis`ele Freund: Photographer'' is enlivened by the photographer's reminiscences of her sitters. It contains some of her early photography in Frankfurt, a chill record of the rise of Nazism. The book concludes with many photographs of Latin America, to which Freund fled when the Germans occupied Paris, and to which she often returned. The Latin American work ranges from an impish Ivan Illich to a grinning Juan Per'on, and includes an apocalyptic landscape of Tierra del Fuego.
The photographs and remembrances in this book serve to remind viewers how little is known about Gis`ele Freund. Freund led as much of an adventurous, heroic, self-directed life as did Margaret Bourke-White. More than most photographers, Freund knew the history of her field as well as her craft. Her PhD thesis on the sociology of photography, written at the Sorbonne in 1936, has become a classic in the history of photography. What is needed now is a comprehensive study of Freund's writing in relation to her photographs.
She, herself, began that task in her 1970 autobiography. As Freund sought to photograph the moment of unison between outer appearance and inner character, someone must reach back through the pictures and the words and disclose the photographer, Gis`ele Freund.