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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Nathan Myhrvold: The Art Of Science

Nathan Myhrvold is the ultimate embodiment of the Renaissance Man, and among his achievements is reinventing the art of food photography

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The expansive kitchen space where the recipes are brought together also serves as a photographic studio.
"Meanwhile, cookbooks are full of food photos," Myhrvold says, "but always in a very particular sense. Food photos have a very pedestrian role, more than most other kinds of commercial photography, where you've got more freedom to take an interesting photo. Whereas most food photos—most, not all—are there for a very specific role, and it's pretty heavy-handed. They're full of lots of cues, and those cues are setting up a gestalt about what the picture is about. The food is a player, but it's only one of the many players. Magazine covers in November are supposed to show a turkey with some version of a Norman Rockwell traditional American Thanksgiving. And that's what it's supposed to be about. The idea that you'd have an edgy Thanksgiving photo is just a nonstarter.

"We set out to do things in a bunch of ways that were very different," he adds. "We had no food stylists. We had a sense that, as chefs, it's kind of the chef's job to make the food look good. So I and the other chefs, we styled all of the food. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with food stylists, but I was afraid that if we hired someone we would get the kinds of things they were good at, which is the kinds of things that all other food photos do. We set out to do something different and I think we achieved it, which is remarkable because people have been taking pictures of food for 100 years. But the idea of creating a new, edgy, different look in food was available."

During the four years of principal photography for the cookbook, and continued shooting for the Photography book, Myhrvold used every high-end digital camera Canon produced—"I own about every camera made; I'm exaggerating, but only slightly," he says—as well as Canon lenses and custom optics. He reconfigured a set of Nikon microscope objectives from eBay to create supermacro shots that go well beyond 1:1 enlargement. In other cases, like the beautifully textured image of a Savoy cabbage, he used postprocessing techniques to create images that are otherwise optically impossible.

The refreshing food photography of Myhrvold and his team at Modernist Cuisine may seem to be the result of digital trickery, but the majority of work was done in the real world, as you can see in this cutaway shot of Myhrvold taking a shot of a cutaway blender. Their goal for the book was to forge a different approach to the soft-focus, high-key look that's popular in food photography.

"This isn't a hard shot at all," says. Myhrvold. "We went to the farmer's market and picked a bunch of good models. What I loved was the wonderful textures and color and the gradations of chartreuse. So the deal was to light it softly so that would come across. I've done depth-of-field stacking because I want to show all of the little crinkles. Our eyes refocus to see all of them, but when you shoot with a camera, you only get the instantaneous part. It's not obvious it's a focus-stacking image, but the wonderful gradations and textures of cabbage just keep going and going. Photography is always about excerpting some aspect of reality. For Cartier-Bresson, it's the decisive moment, this single frame taken out of the whole thing is somehow stronger than what it was before. All photography is about isolating that. Some photos are there because you isolate with depth of field. Is it more or less natural to shoot with an ƒ/1.4 lens or to stack photos? They're different sides of the same coin. It happens that a certain photographic situation is going to require one rather than another.

"I'm sure there's some parallel universe in which I became a photographer," Myhrvold adds. "Instead, I got busy. When I was at Microsoft in the late 1980s, I was very busy, but I had enough income that I could buy cameras again, so I started buying cameras and taking pictures quite seriously. I started doing a lot of travel and landscape photography, but it was this project that allowed me to take several of my long-standing passions and pull all of these things I've always loved to do—science and photography and cooking—all into one thing. And it worked out."

See more of Nathan Myhrvold's food photography at modernistcuisine.com.


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