If you enjoy snapping the occasional picture of what you’ve made for dinner, great! You have something in common with Seattle tech mogul and gastronaut Nathan Myhrvold.
Your pictures probably aren’t in a museum, though.
An exhibition of photography from Myhrvold’s landmark 2011 Modernist Cuisine cookbook and the follow-up Modernist Cuisine at Home opens this weekend at the Pacific Science Center (PSC) in Seattle. The exhibition coincides with the release of The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, a food-porn coffee table book—itself about the size of a coffee table—full of beautiful and strange images of food.
The Modernist project combines Myhrvold’s lifelong interests in cooking and photography. He says he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for his family at age 9, and photographed it.
Some of the images in the book and PSC exhibit were informed by a 9-year-old’s sensibilities, but executed by a man with one of the world’s most sophisticated kitchens, and the full kit of Intellectual Ventures, the patent licensing and R&D shop founded by the former Microsoft technology chief. Parents, beware of showing your kids the super-slow-motion video of a glass of red wine falling and exploding; a row of eggs shot through with a rifle; a cube of red Jell-O jiggling like some wild combination of fire and water.
Other images, such as a photograph of parrot fish taken in an Indonesian market at 6 a.m., have a painterly quality.
And then there’s the flat-out cool cross-section photos.
When embarking on the Modernist project, Myhrvold and team decided that only actual photos—not illustrations—would suffice to show what happens inside the pot when you make a pot roast or boil carrots, for example.
To accomplish these shots, they affixed panels of Pyrex glass to pots cut in half. Yes, he used Photoshop in some cases, for example to hide the red silicon glue used to attach the glass (apparently they don’t make high-temperature glue in a transparent color). The effect is fascinating.
One of the most iconic Modernist images of this sort is a Weber grill, cut in half, coals aglow, hamburger patties in cross-section sizzling on the grate. Myhrvold confirms that it was a live-fire job. An assistant sat just outside the view of the camera, picking up the hot coals as they spilled out of the grill.
Myhrvold says the images in the books and exhibit have a range of goals from the artistic to the pedagogical, underscoring the science textbook aspect of the Modernist project. Time-lapse, high-speed, and high-magnification images capture scientific phenomena from the mundane to the extraordinary happening in kitchens all the time.
“Cooking is the only experiment we all do on a regular basis,” he says.
There are appetizing pictures, such as a tidal wave of mac-and-cheese spilling across a 71-inch-wide frame. And there are others that Myhrvold describes as “disgusting, once you find out what they are.” In that category is the highly magnified trichinella worm in pork flesh.
“That’s part of the world of food as well,” he says, noting that the photo helped illustrate a chapter on food safety. “I wanted it to be an interesting, dynamic topic.”
He says that he’s surprised that the Modernist books have sold more than 100,000 copies.
“We had a very strong sense of what the book should be and it violated almost every principle in conventional publishing,” he says.