Gisèle Freund: Photographic portrait of Walter Benjamin (1937)

Photograph: Walter Benjamin, philosopher
Walter Benjamin in the National Library in Paris, 1937, taken by Gisèle Freund
© bpk | IMEC, Fonds MCC | Gisèle Freund

Gisèle Freund: Photographic portrait of Walter Benjamin (1937)

Ich gab keineswegs vor, Kunstwerke zu schaffen oder neue Formen zu erfinden, ich wollte zeigen, was mir am meisten am Herzen liegt: der Mensch, seine Freuden und Leiden, seine Hoffnungen und Ängste.

[I certainly didn't pretend to be making works of art or inventing new forms, I wanted to show what means the most to me: people, with their joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. (ed. trans.)]

Gisèle Freund, Memoiren des Auges, 1977

The philosopher and literature critic Walter Benjamin was not simply an occasional chess partner for the photographer and doctor of sociology Gisèle Freund; as German émigré Jews in exile in Paris, they also shared a common destiny. Benjamin, whom Freund had met and admired as a student in 1932 and with whom she developed a friendly relationship, wrote a positive review of her dissertation. For her part, Freund made numerous portraits of Benjamin, including the now-famous colour photograph in which a melancholy and tired-looking Benjamin looks into the camera with his hand to his forehead.

Characteristic of Freund's portraits, the portrait of Benjamin in the French National Library shows the subject in his natural surroundings: Benjamin, the learnéd literature critic and philosopher, absorbed in the reading of several opened books before a background of bookshelves. The result is an adeptly crafted, yet seemingly arbitrary photographic depiction of the person of Benjamin. The artist herself said, “I met Walter Benjamin and photographed him as I saw him.”