On December 1908 Gisèle (Gisela) Freund was born in Berlin into a well-connected Jewish family with ties to such noted figures as Albert Einstein, Max Slevogt, and Walter Benjamin. Rather than attend a girls school, she completed her secondary schooling in private. She studied art history and literature, first at Freiburg, and later in Frankfurt, under Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, where she also became involved in politics.
Gisèle Freund had begun taking photographs as a young girl, and always kept her Leica handy at university. She was thus receptive to the suggestion of writing a sociological study about photography a subject that had not been researched until then. In 1933, due to her political stance and her family background, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she continued her work on her dissertation. She earned her living as a photographer. Her friendship with publisher and bookseller Andrienne Monnier enabled Freund to eventually publish the dissertation. The book was re-issued in 1974 under the title Fotografie und Gesellschaft (Photography and Society).
After Gisèle Freund became a French citizen in 1936 she became friends with Camus, Sartre, and other well-known figures. In the meantime she had begun to specialize in color portrait photography; among her subjects were James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Andre Gide. Although she earned money doing photojournalism in black and white, her ultimate goal was to create a collection of portraits of famous people.
With the outbreak of the war, Gisèle Freund had to escape a second time. She emigrated to Argentina, where she did a seres of photographs of Eva Perón for Life magazine in 1950. Between 1947 and 1954 Freund was a member of the Magnum photographic cooperative, but she had to quit due to her political views. For two years she lived in Mexico, where she struck up a friendship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Afterwards she returned to Paris and worked on her collection of portraits, which were exhibited for the first time in 1963. In 1981 Freund took the official portrait of President Mitterand of France.
Gisèle Freund retired from photography a few years later and died in Paris on March 31, 2000.