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Freund Keeps Her Camera Case Packed

June 18, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

GiseLle Freund's life as a photojournalist has been a series of penetrating observations punctuated by dramatic events, a few quick getaways and thousands of shutter clicks. As a student activist on the Nazis' hit list in 1933, she fled her native Berlin for Paris. Among her few possessions were chilling photos of political demonstrations in Germany.

Seventeen years later in Argentina, after wheedling her way into the company of Eva Peron and taking pictures for a revealing photo essay, Freund had to grab her camera, pack her bags and run to the airport. Ordered to appear at a government office with all her negatives at 8 o'clock the next morning, she took the first plane out of the country.

Freund is 79 now and her pace has slowed, but she's still up for a challenge or a bit of excitement. An unexpected invitation to be a Visiting Scholar for the History of Art and the Humanities at the Getty Center was "an offer I couldn't refuse," she said in a recent interview. And when Los Angeles greeted her arrival last October with an earthquake, she assured friends who called to inquire about her safety that it was only a minor tremblement de terre-- far less serious than those she had experienced in South and Central America.

Winding up an eight-month stay in Santa Monica, where the Getty has housed her in a modest apartment and provided her with a lavish array of research materials, Freund recently submitted to an interview and to being photographed. This business of shooting rolls and rolls of film to satisfy editors is something she can't fathom. "I always know when I have the picture I want, and I stop. It's not the quantity, it's the quality," she declared while indulging the photographer.

Modern practices may be a philosophical mystery to Freund, but she can't be accused of living in the past. In fact, she has reversed the usual direction of human vision. Fascinated with history in her youth, she wrote her doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne on 19th-Century photography. During young adulthood and middle age, she was more concerned with the present, shooting pictures of current events and publishing books called "The World and My Camera" and "Photography and Society." The latter serves as a standard French textbook on photojournalism.

She started doing commercial assignments to finance her studies and eventually worked on major news stories for Time, Life and Robert Capa's Magnum group. "That's what I did for a living, but my portraits were for myself," she said. The portraits, mostly taken in Paris and London from the 1930s through the '70s, make up a sort of Who's Who of 20th-Century arts and literature. Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp are among her artist models, while Virginia Woolf, Colette, James Joyce and Andre Gide are on her lengthy roster of writers. She snapped John Steinbeck's picture surreptitiously as he signed travelers' checks at the American Express office in Paris, but most of the others agreed to be photographed in their homes or studios.

"They didn't like their pictures. They were accustomed to retouched studio portraits," Freund said. She dug into the character of her subjects in stunningly sensitive pictures that appear elegantly composed but are actually candid. "I never pretended to be an artist. Nothing is posed. My talent is to go to the esprit of the person. I have a gift for putting myself into someone else, to forget myself so that the photographer disappears," she said.

"I always thought the most important thing for photography to do was to make people known to others. When I was young, it seemed to me that if we understood each other we wouldn't have to fight. That was naive, but I love human beings. I love literature and art. When I photographed artists and writers, I was interested in their work and knew something about it." Once they relaxed and got to talking about their work, they would forget the camera and Freund knew instinctively when to shoot her pictures.

Freund's current project at the Getty deals with recent changes that have propelled her craft into the future. Fortified with boxes of material on space-age photography from NASA and information on the latest technological advances from the labs of Polaroid and Kodak, she is writing a book on photography of the last 20 years.

Computers play a big part in that story, but she confesses a certain ambivalence toward them. "I had to fight to learn to use a computer" to retrieve information at the Getty's library, she said, but she will probably buy one when she returns to Paris. And though she sees home computers as the answer to traffic problems (with people working at home instead of commuting), she worries about what technology is doing to human contact and to photography.

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