My memories of Julia Child

August 8, 2009

The movie Julie and Julia certainly has gotten a lot of press, hasn’t it? Friends and relatives keep sending me news clips and web links to stories about Julia, as if somehow I might be missing all the hoopla. You see, I worked with Julia Child for a number of years and shot cookbooks and magazine articles with her, first at our PBS station in Boston, and later at her home in Cambridge MA. In fact, she’s the reason I got into food photography in the first place. So everyone is interested and asks me what it was like to have known her.

I’m a little uncomfortable with all the Julia fans who are amazed to be talking to someone who knew her. There was never anything “superstar” about Julia, and I’m sure she would agree that my knowing her was nothing remarkable. In fact, that’s just what made Julia special – she was straightforward, never put on airs, and called it like it was. She answered her own house phone, in that voice of hers.

We worked hard together, doing photos for Julia Child & Company, its sequel Julia Child & More Company, her magazine series for Parade Magazine, and her book The Way to Cook. She thought of herself as a teacher – never a “chef” – and often I’d find myself shooting from over her shoulder to illustrate cooking steps. Julia was generous to me in many ways, and during our lunch breaks she always thought to ask me about my family, my kids, and my other photographic projects. I felt she treated me a little like a son.

There were a few years when we’d photograph in her house on Irving Street in Cambridge. We’d turn her dining room into a studio, and bring food back and forth through the butler’s pantry to the adjacent kitchen. Her husband Paul, by then retired, was also an artist and a photographer. Most people regarded him as a bit of a recluse – but I always admired him and we got along perfectly. Maybe we’re kindred spirits! Anyway, the house had a beautiful hand-carved mahogany chest in the front hall which was made by Paul. There were also oil paintings on the wall which Paul had done, the most striking one a village street scene in China.

Julia gave me a few things after Paul died: his tripod, a few art supplies of his, and a handful of his photographs. Later, when the Smithsonian was planning to make her kitchen an exhibit, Julia was preparing to move to Santa Barbara for the last time and I went to see her. I took a small gift as a token, a print. Neither of us said it, but I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. We hugged and said good-bye. Thank you, Julia, for everything.

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