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

The outbreak of World War II forced Freund to flee again, and in 1942, at the invitation of the director of the periodical Sur in Buenos Aires, she traveled to Argentina. With the end of the war she returned to Paris and in 1947 was invited to join the photo agency Magnum. She was dismissed only a few years later (1954) because of her political views. In 1950 her report of Juan and Evita Perón was published in Life, following 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 of 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. Among the numerous books Freund published were James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years (1965) and Photographie et société (1974). Gisèle Freund died on March 31, 2000 in Paris.