From the blog April 26, 2011 Modernist Cuisine Team

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 1

Getting the Pot Boiling

About three-and-half years ago, I was fresh out of my fourth run at a college education. This time, however, I actually managed to finish a two-year program and earned a degree in photography from the Art Institute of Seattle. I set out to get a job with little more than a couple of portfolios filled with nature and architecture photography; I had no real-world work experience to speak of. After four months just scraping by, I saw an ad on Craigslist seeking a photo editor with excellent compositing skills and three years of work experience. It made no mention of a book.

The position seemed intriguing, so I sent in a link to my website and a very long email pumping myself up (it probably read like I was trying to fight off assignments, clients were blowing up my phone, and I had been an established photographer for 10 years). Wayt Gibbs, the editor in chief of Modernist Cuisine, wrote back. I was in for an interview!

I’m terrible in interviews: I get nervous, avoid eye contact, clip my answers short, talk extremely quietly, answer “I don’t know,” and sweat profusely. I confess I was a bit starstruck at first: I had heard of Nathan during a photography lecture at school, but it had never occurred to me that I might one day meet the man, let alone interview to work for him!

Luckily, Wayt and Nathan looked past that and focused on my photography. Most of the meetings were spent by Wayt and Nathan explaining the project to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t have to say much other than YES THAT SOUNDS AMAZING while trying not to come off as unprofessionally enthusiastic.

The basic rundown was that Nathan, Wayt, and a couple others had begun work on a cookbook, and I would act as both Nathan’s photo assistant and lead photo editor on the project. Nathan is an award-winning photographer, and he was planning to shoot the entire book himself (on top of doing most of the writing and running Intellectual Ventures). Long before this, he had come up with the concept of making “cutaway” shots to illustrate what goes on inside food as it cooks. In fact, he had already shot some test images for the first cutaways and had made a bunch of amazing photomicrographs in his home microscopy lab. My job would be to do the Photoshop work, keep all the photos organized, and handle rights and permissions for any stock photography we used in the book.

An early photomicrograph Nathan shot of trichinella in pig muscle.

In my first two days on the job, I went to Nathan’s house in a Seattle suburb to assist him and Chris Young with the first photo shoot. We started in the kitchen, shooting images for step-by-step illustrations of combi oven techniques. Then we moved to a studio set up in the garage to take photos of two pans that the Intellectual Ventures machine shop had cut in half. These images eventually became part of the very first three cutaways.

A test shot made in December 2007 to work out ideas for cutaway photographs.

The broccoli cutaway that appears both inside volume 2 and on its cover was the highlight of that first shoot. Chris and Nathan worked away, slicing blanched broccoli in half and pinning the florets in place with toothpicks, while I moved lights and cards for Nathan before he snapped the shot. At the end of the day, we had a very iconic photo that would heavily influence the direction and style of photography for the book.

We used toothpicks to hold broccoli florets in place during shooting. The handle of the lid was later removed digitally.

First lay­out sketch for the steam­ing broc­coli cut­away. Note the graph con­cept that shows steam­ing cook­ing faster than boil­ing. When we con­ducted exper­i­ments in the lab to gather data for the real chart, how­ever, we found to our sur­prise that the reverse is true: boil­ing is slightly faster, as shown (and explained) in the final ver­sion in the book.

Nathan set many goals for us during that first week, and we accomplished most of them. But one remains unfulfilled. After shooting a rib eye steak in Nathan’s combi oven, he, Chris, and I were standing around the kitchen polishing off the perfectly cooked rare meat when Nathan shouted out, “Let Ryan have more; he’s way too skinny!” A moment later he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll fatten you up by the end of this project.” Although I ate very well during the course of the project, I’m still stuck at 155 pounds!

The final broccoli cutaway image

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Discussion

  1. Gary May 12, 2011 Reply

    Wow, great post! Can hardly wait to see where this goes!

    How many shots did you actually take to make the book?

  2. Jane May 22, 2011 Reply

    the time lapse video of the creamer in the coffee… what is that music. You must have a lot of patience.

  3. Lauren July 1, 2011 Reply

    Are prints of the artwork for sale?

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