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Book of the Week: France Is a Feast – A Pick by Laura M. André

Book of the Week Book of the Week: France Is a Feast – A Pick by Laura M. André Laura M. André selects France Is a Feast, with photographs by Paul Child, as Book of the Week.
France Is a Feast
Photographs by Paul Child Thames & Hudson, 2017.

Laura M. André selects France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child as Book of the Week.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember fondly watching Julia Child's television shows. As a ten-year-old with zero interest in French cooking, I found both current episodes and black-and-white re-runs surprisingly entertaining. The show was all about Julia herself, by then a grandmotherly dame whose sense of humor in the face of her sometimes botched kitchen antics embodied an endearing je-m'en-foutisme (couldn't-care-less attitude).

Like many others in my generation, I became reacquainted with Julia Child — and her cultural importance — through her posthumously published memoir,  My Life in France, and its popular film adaptation, Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia and Jeffrey Tambor as her husband, Paul. So naturally, I was excited to learn about France Is a Feast, the new photobook from Thames & Hudson that presents, for the first time, 225 of Paul Child's photographs alongside a narrative of the couple's time in France (by their great-nephew Alex Prud'homme and longtime family friend Katie Pratt).

Although I was primed to find the effort charming, I wasn't fully prepared for Paul Child's photographs to knock me out the way they did. Here, in image after image, Child's work displays the best qualities of the most iconic post-World War II French humanist photographs: Cartier-Bresson's composition; Robert Doisneau's wit; Willy Ronis' lighting; and the proud, passionate francophilia they all shared. The book intersperses these kinds of images with Paul's more informal snapshots of Julia. Here, the stooped, grandmotherly woman many of us knew only from television appears as a young, leggy, and captivating woman, living life to the fullest and savoring every moment.

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, this kind of postwar photography often came under scrutiny because it failed to address — and, more importantly, it disguised — very real contemporary issues of French colonialism, racism, and economic and sexual inequalities. In that world, images like Paul Child's were evidence of privileged insouciance about those societal problems, and nostalgia — a longing for a past that never was — for an uncomplicated sense of social and cultural entitlement. I always felt like it was a guilty pleasure to admire those kinds of images.

Now, I'm older and less judgmental. And, this book shares that Paul grew up on the brink of poverty after his father died. His mother made ends meet by singing in friends' living rooms, as her children accompanied her on musical instruments. He was forced to drop out of Columbia University after one year, when money for his education ran out. Paul and Julia met abroad as foreign service employees.

From the distance of 2017, with all that has happened and is happening in our world, I see these images through at least two lenses. The critical lens is still there, but it shares equal space with an empathetic one through which I see the photographs simply as evidence of a real existence that two particular individuals lived in a certain place and time that's forever gone. It's like looking at snapshots of my grandparents when they were young. And while, at one point in the not-so-distant past, I could still claim a bit of a hold on the places and times in those old family photos, the decades since have rendered much of them unreachable anymore.

Now, Paul Child's seductive and gorgeous mid-20th-century photographs might as well be from 1900, or even the 19th century; so distant the places, times, and sensibilities they depict are to our own. They have become historical documents, and as such, have earned from me a new level of well-deserved respect. Bon appetit!

France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child. Photographs by Paul Child. Text by Alex Prud'homme and Katie Pratt. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

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France Is a FeastPhotographs by Paul Child. Thames & Hudson, 2017

France Is a FeastPhotographs by Paul ChildThames & Hudson, 2017.

Laura M. André received her PhD in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught photo history at the University of New Mexico before leaving academia to work with photobooks. She is the manager of photo-eye's book division.