Nathan Myhrvold is one hell of a photographer. With his new book The Photography of Modern Cuisine, he and his team of photographers practically reinvented food photography, abandoning its most clichéd commercial techniques in favor of a groundbreaking aesthetic that better serves its purpose—to clearly illustrate a six-volume, 2,438-page cookbook that also carries Myhrvold’s byline and that similarly reshaped thinking about the art and science of food preparation.
Dr. Myhrvold’s name is likely familiar, but it’s likely not from photography. Though he’s a noted landscape and wildlife photographer, he’s better known as the boy who entered college at 14, earned degrees in mathematics, physics and economics from UCLA and Princeton, spent a year at Cambridge studying theoretical physics with Stephen Hawking, built a company and sold it to Bill Gates, became Microsoft’s first Chief Technology Officer and held the role for 13 years until he left to start another new company, Intellectual Ventures, which is noted for being one of the largest patent owners in the United States. He’s also the man who upended the art and science of food photography.
The threads of art and science have always run through Myhrvold’s personal and professional lives, from the moment they spurred a childhood interest in photography and cooking, to 2011, when the by-now classically trained chef published a 50-pound, $500 tome called Modernist Cuisine. The work became a touchstone, a must-have for the serious chef, and from the moment he conceived of it, he knew photography would be integral to its success.
"Photography was always part of the idea," Myhrvold says. "We were going to make a book that was very in depth, that tried to cover the state of the art of culinary science, and I realized that it could be very technical, a daunting book. So I thought one of the ways we would combat that was to make the book really visually compelling, and we’d use great photography to do that. When we discuss what happens inside a food when you cook it, rather than using a line drawing or a diagram, let’s have a photo. Because a photo can show you something in a way that’s just way more compelling. If we had really striking photos, that would cause people to get interested and we would suck them in, get our hooks in and away we go."
The photography hooked Myhrvold, too. Leading the teams that wrote the recipes, prepared the food and photographed the dishes, he acted simultaneously as chef, writer and photographer, as well as chief creative director for all aspects of the project. As photographer, though, his experience had been almost exclusively outside the studio, making this project a learning experience, too.
"I had a bunch of studio equipment," Myhrvold explains. "Almost all of the equipment we used—Broncolor strobes, the big camera stand—I already had, but I had never gotten into using it that much. I was familiar with it, but I wasn’t a studio photographer. The trouble with the studio is that I have a very busy life, and because I control the studio, it was possible to put the time off. Whereas if you schedule a trip to Africa, you’re going to Africa."
Unsurprisingly, Myhrvold is a fast learner. Not only did he manage to navigate the strobes and other technical studio challenges, but he quickly thrived. One of the first images he made for the cookbook raised the bar both technically and aesthetically. Out of the gate, he was shooting for greatness.
"I set up in my garage," he says, "and I shot the carrots and the broccoli cutaways. The way we chose to do it was to say we’ve invented a magic, X-ray vision, Superman way of looking inside your pots and pans, and so we’ll go do that in as many contexts as we can—whether that’s blenders or it’s cream whippers or barbecues or whatever—and then we’ll go use that to tell the story. Pretty soon, it was clear that we had a look going and we could take that and build on it."
For the cutaways—photographs of pots and pans and foods literally severed in half—verisimilitude was important. Myhrvold shot everything as straight in-camera as possible, relying on compositing and digital wizardry only to fill in gaps as needed.
"Case by case," he explains, "we would shoot through a sheet of Pyrex® or not. There’s a cut-in-half sieve that had nothing glued on it and it turns out you don’t need to have anything glued on; you just stack it right and it works. There’s a frying pan that shows the same thing. For the half a blender, it’s literally half a blender. There’s a shot in the book of me photographing the half a blender, and you can see there are some wires and needles sticking out. We found that just by being straightforward and packing stuff in, that was actually enough to get us a hell of a shot. One of our philosophies was, it only had to look good for a thousandth of a second. Once we got the shot, it didn’t matter if it all went to hell.
"All digital photography uses some Photoshop," Myhrvold continues. "You always color-correct, you always spot, you always do a bunch of stuff, and we were certainly not above doing some editing. In the case of the boiling water, we separately shot pictures of boiling water and used them to composite, very much like on a Spiderman movie, taking out the wires. A key element to us when we did use compositing or other tools, we were still trying to get that straight shot. We were trying to get a picture of the cut-in-half pan just as straightforward as the shot of the tomato."
The tomato image that graces the cover of the book represents another defining element in the project’s aesthetic. More than just the technical innovation, Myhrvold’s simple, minimalist compositions put the focus squarely onto the food. This, too, was a deliberate choice made to put distance between what’s typical of food photography and what the photographer held as a higher standard.
"One of our points of philosophy is that we want people to look at food in a different way," Myhrvold says, "and so we had to look at food in a different way. It’s just a tomato, but we wanted you to look at a tomato in a way you hadn’t ever looked at it before, and honor something as simple as a tomato this way. When you look at them up close, tomatoes actually are speckled, they have all these little imperfections. The other thing I personally love about that shot is the thing that gets the biggest play isn’t the tomato, it’s the stem. That’s trying to be a reference to where tomatoes come from.
"Let’s take pictures of food that aren’t like any pictures of food people have taken," he continues. "I don’t mean in any way to slight people who do food photography, but it’s a little bit of a strange field. Most food photography is commercial, but many parts of commercial photography have more dignity, in the sense that if you take fashion photos, fashion photos are something that p
eople think are legitimate for museum shows, they’re legitimate for coffee-table books. Well, try to find that on food. Food photography seems to have been banished almost entirely to commercial things. It’s very rare to find picture books of food. It’s very rare to have pictures of food in museums or treated like they’re art at some level.
"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.
"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.