A Camera in the Kitchen

Photographs of Paul and Julia from page 262 of My Life in France, Thérèse-Marie Blazek If you haven’t seen Nora Ephron’s latest film Julie & Julia yet, there are several scenes, which indicate that aside from his work for the U.S. government, Julia Child’s husband Paul was a photographer. After seeing the film, I did a little research and learned that as a young adult, Paul moved to Paris and pursued an artistic profession, working in different media including painting, drawing, and woodcarving. Then, over a twenty-year period, he taught a variety of courses, including photography. Julia wrote in her memoir My Life in France, that Paul “was ambitious for his painting and photography, which he did on evenings or weekends, but even those ambitions were more aesthetic than commercial . . . But his motivation for making paintings and photographs wasn’t fame or riches: his pleasure in the act of creating, ‘the thing itself,’ was reward enough.” Apparently Paul considered photojournalism as a possible profession to pursue, but had no interest in the “ulcers and deadlines” that come with the job. Instead Julia fell into the limelight and Paul faithfully documented their life together from behind the scenes. Some of his black-and-white photographs of the French countryside and Parisian scenes are included in Julia’s memoir.

Though Paul is not most known for his art, he used photography to contribute to the illustrations in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In one scene from the film, Paul (played by Stanley Tucci) stands on a chair in their Massachusetts kitchen, taking pictures with a twin-lens reflex camera from over Julia’s shoulder as she tests recipes for the cookbook. According to Julia, the couple decided that unlike other cookbooks at the time, they would illustrate the recipes from the cook’s perspective. It would have been too expensive to reprint step-by-step photographs in the book, so Paul’s photos were then sent to an artist who would create simple line drawings: stop-action diagrams of Julia’s hands whisking egg whites, kneading bread dough and trussing a chicken, among many other steps. (Paul would have done the drawings himself, but for the sake of time). Now, of course, step-by-step photo-illustrated recipes can be published free of charge, by means of blogs and digital cameras. But in the mid-twentieth century, cookbooks were only beginning to be published with photos and drawings.

Exhibition View of Julia Child's Kitchen at The National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behr
Paul was Julia’s helpmate and she claims that without him, she never would have had her career. And thanks to her career, we can enjoy Paul’s photographs, despite the fact that he was never seeking artistic fame. The actual kitchen in which Julia cooked and Paul photographed is on display at the National Museum of American History. Online visitors can read the diary about moving the kitchen and its contents from their home in Massachusetts to Washington D.C. here.

Christin Boggs is an Intern at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative

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