A book of intimate, evocative photographs taken by Paul Child, France is a Feast documents how he and his wife Julia explored France, its people, and la cuisine Francaise between 1948-54.
Living in Paris and Marseille — where he worked at a cultural attaché – inspired Julia’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), and her career as a celebrity author and TV chef. Julia and I wrote about this in her memoir, My Life in France (2006). This new book is a visual extension of that story, told from Paul’s perspective. “If variety is the spice of life,” he said, “then I have led a curry of a life.”
Julia called her husband “the Mad Photographer,” because he rarely left the house without one or two, or sometimes three, cameras slung around his neck. She would often accompany him, and use her long arms to shield the sun from his lens. “Paris was wonderfully walkable, and it was a natural subject for Paul. He caught the spirit of the city, and you could feel his love for the subjects,” Julia recalled. “When one follows the artist’s eye, one sees unexpected treasures in so many seemingly ordinary scenes.”
Though he worked as a diplomat, Paul devoted much of his free time to photography. His eye was drawn to portraits, architectural compositions, landscapes, and abstractions. He had his own sensibility, but knew many of the leading photographers of the day, and was no doubt influenced by their work. The photos in France is a Feast range from intimate snapshots of Julia at home, to “decisive moment” street documentary in the manner of Cartier-Bresson, cityscapes a la Brassai, and broad landscapes and carefully arranged compositions in the spirit of Edward Weston. Paul befriended Edward Steichen, who chose six of Paul’s images for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
Not surprisingly, Julia was one of Paul’s favorite subjects: he captured her at work and at play a decade before she gained fame as “The French Chef.” In these photographs, he captured Julia in her gestational phase, when she was an obscure diplomatic wife who experienced “a flowering of the soul” in French kitchens, and was in the process of becoming “Julia Child.”
Paul’s photography remained relatively obscure during his lifetime (he died in 1994, at age 92). But the publication of Julia’s memoir My Life in France in 2006, and illustrated with Paul’s photographs, led to a reappraisal of his talent. The public’s enthusiastic response convinced me to collaborate with the photo curator Katie Pratt (who grew up with the Childs in Cambridge, MA) on this book.
France is a Feast is illustrated with 225 of Paul’s black and white images, most of which have not been widely seen before.