Gisèle Freund was born in Berlin on December 19, 1908. She studied sociology and art history in the universities of Freiburg and Frankfurt under Theodor W. Adorno, Norbert Elias, and Karl Mannheim. In 1933 she escaped to Paris to avoid arrest for her opposition to the Nazi regime. There Freund continued her studies at the Sorbonne. In 1936, thanks to her friendship with publisher and bookseller Andrienne Monnier, she published her doctoral thesis, a sociological study on photography in 19th century France. The same year Freund was awarded French citizenship and two years later became one of the first photographers to use 35mm color film for her portraits of artists, writers and intellectuals. She portrayed Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Duchamp, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, André Gide, and Virginia Woolf, among others. At the same time, Freund also worked as a photojournalist covering social issues. Her photographs were published in Vu, Weekly Illustrated, and Life.

The outbreak of World War II forced Freund to flee Germany once more. In 1942, at the invitation of the director of the periodical, Sur, in Buenos Aires, she traveled to Argentina. At the end of the war she returned to Paris and in 1947 was invited to join photo agency Magnum. She was dismissed only a few years later (in 1954) because of her political views. In 1950 her report of Juan and Evita Perón was published in Life, after which she spent two years in Mexico, where she befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In 1953 she settled back in Paris.

In 1968 Freund was given an important exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and in 1981 was commissioned to take the official portrait of the President of France, François Mitterrand. Freund was made Officier des Arts at Lettres in 1982 and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1983. In 1991 the Centre Georges Pompidou mounted a large retrospective of her work. The numerous books Freund published include James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years (1965) and Photographie et société (1974). Gisèle Freund died on March 31, 2000 in Paris.