Nathan Myhrvold: The Art Of Science

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.

Blueberries cut open. Myhrvold employed high-power flashes and custom optics to achieve larger-than-life macros.

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.”

A “blowup” of Camembert cheese on brioche bread.

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.

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.

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