Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Nathan Myhrvold: The Art Of Science

By William Sawalich, Photography By Nathan Myhrvold Published in Photographer Profiles
Nathan Myhrvold and his team of scientists-slash-chefs employed a variety of techniques to illustrate a comprehensive 2,400-page book on food and preparation titled Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Differing setups for the six-volume tome required different solutions, like balancing foods and even liquids or learning how to machine kitchen equipment in half. Whereas the majority of photographic challenges were solved physically, images with water, for example, required digital compositing. But even shooting a side view of boiling water was a challenge. Above: A meticulously composed "Vegetable Garden."
Nathan Myhrvold and his team of scientists-slash-chefs employed a variety of techniques to illustrate a comprehensive 2,400-page book on food and preparation titled Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Differing setups for the six-volume tome required different solutions, like balancing foods and even liquids or learning how to machine kitchen equipment in half. Whereas the majority of photographic challenges were solved physically, images with water, for example, required digital compositing. But even shooting a side view of boiling water was a challenge. Above: A meticulously composed "Vegetable Garden."
A cutaway pan holding cutaway jars.

"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 people 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.
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