To celebrate the release of Food & Drink: Modernist Cuisine Photography, which is available now, we’re giving you a look at some of the iconic images from our new coffee table book. Food & Drink commemorates the last decade of Modernist Cuisine food photography. Nathan and the team have taken thousands and thousands of photos in that time. We spent over a year combing through our archives, selecting more than 200 of our favorite images for this new photography collection.
The 216-page Food & Drink examines its subject matters through six different lenses—photography speed, photography scale, cutaway photography, portraiture, still-life photography, and playing with food—to illustrate how Nathan and the team play with different technology, equipment, styles, and perspectives to capture foods and drinks in a new light. Here’s some of the gorgeous food photography that you’ll discover inside.
The Speed of The Photography
Human eyes only work so quickly, which means there are lots of beautiful and important things we just can’t see. Our reflexes often aren’t fast enough to capture a fleeting moment of action, like a champaign splash. The miracle is when you capture the movement and speed of the subject in a particular moment; it is both remarkably beautiful and can be quite unexpected.
In other cases, a phenomenon that appears instantaneous to the naked eye actually contains complexities that are only revealed when the motion is slowed to a hundredth or thousandth of its normal pace. Our studio includes a DSLR camera and a specialized, high-speed video camera, as well as custom-built robot-assisted cameras and specialized flashes, to capture moments such as these.
A perfectly brewed cup of coffee with cream is a thing of beauty in and of itself. In this cutaway view, you see the pattern made as the cream, which is lighter than the coffee but also colder, plunges to the bottom of the cup and forms billowing clouds that rise to the surface. To capture this image, Nathan built a robot that used a break-beam sensor to trigger the pitcher to pour the cream, allowing it to behave in a surprisingly repeatable way.
This image of sabered champagne was created with the help of a specially designed robot. The “saber bot” moves its metal arm toward the neck of the wine bottle with incredible force—enough to snap the neck of the bottle and let the champagne spray out. In conjunction with the robot, Nathan used a high-speed camera, allowing him to capture the cork’s flight pattern as it departs the bottle.
The drama and elegance of the wine as it spills creates a bewitching illusion, as if the wineglasses were waltzing around the room. When the glasses bump, there’s a natural delay because of inertia, and it makes the liquid wrap around itself in the photo. Captured in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, this shot was taken with the help of a custom-built wine-catapulting robot, which launched one glass of wine after another. The arrangement of the wine wrapping around the intertwined glasses is not an editing trick—this is the exact pattern that formed when the glasses collided. Nathan usually takes hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of photos to get “the shot,” but this stunning display of wine in motion was the very first photo he took that day.
The Scale of the Photography
The scale of photography can extend from large-scale aerial photography all the way down to the microscopic. It can make us look at things differently depending on how big they are and what other clues are given to estimate size. For example, if we have a very deep depth of field in a photo and are using stacking techniques, then we can make tiny mustard seeds seem like they are boulders.
In our quest to learn more about the many facets of food, we document what we see, and sometimes we try to show it in a way that many people might not have seen it before, such as the aerial shots of wheat fields, which Nathan had to hang out of an airplane to capture.
On the other end of the spectrum are photos that show you an object on a much more intimate scale. Our perspective of food tends to be limited to the scale at which our eyes work—most people don’t examine their food up close. Seeing food magnified by photomicrography, macro, and super-macro photography lets us experience it in a new way.
GREEN WAVES OF GRAIN
At the edge of eastern Washington, far from the coast, a vast green sea tumbles over the land, turning mighty tractors into tiny skiffs. With a little imagination, one can almost envision the dusty kraken that lies beneath. The Palouse is a loess formation, which is a geologist’s term for a rich deposit of topsoil that once formed giant dunes created by the wind. Nathan took a ride in a small plane to get this bird’s-eye view of these grainfields.
Up close and magnified, ordinary mustard seeds become magical. It’s easy to see why an archaic name for these delicate, dimpled orbs was “eye of newt.” Mustard gets its sharp flavor from compounds called glucosinolates, which are produced by certain plants as a natural pesticide. While toxic to many insects, these pungent chemicals have made mustard, the earliest known spice, incredibly popular for nearly 6,000 years.
It may look like an ocean on a distant planet, but this otherworldly sea could actually fit on the head of a pin. This microscopic view of vitamin C, which is also called ascorbic acid, was photographed with a custom microscope. Nathan used polarized light to illuminate the unique patterns of crystals that form when powdered ascorbic acid is dissolved in water and then dried.
A Change of Perspective
Creating compelling visual imagery is a huge part of what we do at Modernist Cuisine because we believe the way information is presented is just as important as the quality of the information itself. Many of our photos carry a pedagogical burden. We use concepts like levitating photos, which show a breakdown of a dish’s components, to convey technical and scientific concepts in a way that’s accessible. These photos allow you to see at a glance what goes into a dish, whether it’s a cheeseburger or a pizza.
We also take and annotate cutaway photographs to explain the scientific principles and equipment at work when you cook or bake. Other cutaways show food in a way that you might not have considered before. Although we had to figure out quite a few tricks to bisect complex gear such as ovens and blenders, hold food in place, and show liquids sliced through the middle, the results were worth the effort.
Our research kitchen and photo studio happen to be under the same roof as a state-of-the-art machine shop staffed by talented machinists and instrument makers. We relied on them to figure out how to fully disassemble complex cooking tools, cut them in half, and then—here’s the real challenge—put them back together, in some cases in working order.
PEANUT BUTTER, JELLY, AND MAGIC; THE ALL-AMERICAN
It turns out you don’t need magic or zero gravity to levitate food. All it takes is a camera and a little ingenuity. This image is one of our most iconic from Modernist Cuisine; it developed a signature style of photography found in each of our books. The results are both functional—each special layer is highlighted simultaneously—and engaging as they reveal two all-American classics from new and enchanting points of view.
HALF AND HALF
In order to achieve this photo, the highly skilled machinists in Nathan’s machine shop completely disassembled a KitchenAid stand mixer and cut it in half piece by piece before painstakingly putting it back together. Nathan uses cutaways like this to show how common kitchen tools work. By offering a unique view, he is constantly challenging the way people see food.
HEAD AND SHOULDERS
When you open a bottle of beer or draw it from the tap of a keg, it goes from a cold, high-pressure environment to a warmer environment at a much lower pressure. The change in pressure and temperature causes much of the carbon dioxide to bubble out of solution, creating a galaxy of bubbles expanding toward the top of the beer.
Playing with Your Food
A sense of wonder and curiosity about food permeates the photography in all of our books. It only made sense that our food photography should be forward-looking and, in some cases, playful. Sometimes this means making a condiment cannon to shoot ketchup onto french fries or fencing with a pair of stale baguettes. Other photos are homages to artists who liked to play with food.
These types of creative photos are meant to break the mold of typical food photography. And they are often the result of much collaboration and a lot of trial and error before getting the shot that we want.
It seems natural to play with your food when it’s so familiar—we’re used to looking at it so why not experiment and have some fun? Part of the process of creating these photographs is to be playful and try things that don’t always work. And, even when they do, they might make a hell of a mess.
The iconic soft Neapolitan pizzas that Nathan had in Italy inspired him to re-create the “soft watches” in Dalí’s classic painting The Persistence of Memory. Dalí often featured landscapes from his home in Catalonia, Spain, but he incorporated Mount Vesuvius in the background as a nod to Naples, the birthplace of pizza.
DON’T WHACK THE BOTTLE
Ketchup is a non-Newtonian fluid—a liquid that, when at rest, acts like a solid, meaning it stubbornly stays in the bottle even if you turn it upside down. While annoying when eating a burger, it’s a fascinating food to photograph. You could get the ketchup flowing by giving the embossed “57” on a Heinz ketchup bottle a few vigorous whacks . . . or if you’re Nathan, you could build a “condiment cannon” that uses high-powered compressed air to blast the ketchup onto french fries to take pictures like this.
Pop art burst on the scene in the 1960s, driven by the creative efforts of Andy Warhol and others. His 1962 series featuring Campbell’s soup epitomized the art of a generation and provided inspiration for this shot.
Often food photography is meant to evoke a memory or feeling. But other types of food photography document something akin to a still life. Still-life images often depict a scene with food—these can be as simple as fruit in a bowl or as elaborate as a feast with pheasants and vegetables meant to represent the autumnal harvest. Some still-life images can give you a sense of what a food looked like in the past.
A lot of our photos focus on the food itself and have little adornment in the scene. That said, we also enjoy creating photos that are closer to the classic still life that tells a story.
Nathan didn’t have to find the biggest shrimp at the market to create this crustacean lover’s dream. In addition to playing with lighting and perspective, he used a photography technique called focus stacking, which involved taking 365 images, to help capture the incredible details of this larger-than-life, perfectly poached shrimp.
Neapolitan Man was inspired by the works of Italian painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th-century court portraitist. His playful portraits were most famously made with fruits and vegetables. Pizza, as we know it today, had not been invented at that time. But Nathan created an homage to what Guiseppe might have made if he’d been lucky enough to have pizza, using ingredients like Caputo 00 flour, fior di latte mozzarella, and dried Calabrian chilies.
In Modernist Bread, we had a category of breads that we dubbed “brick-like breads,” which are mostly made up of grains, seeds, nuts, or dried fruits all bound by a very wet and loose dough. We were celebrating the rich density of these unique breads, which are made in a way that’s quite different from other breads; they are almost akin to a grain pâté.
The photos found in this chapter are about looking at food as the thing itself. We know, calling it portraiture anthropomorphizes the food, but there’s something to that. It forces you to look at an individual piece of food in all its uniqueness. By reducing the scene to focus only on that food in some interesting way, you emphasize it; you see it as something unique and interesting that demands your attention.
We chose to shoot the majority of our food portraits on stark backgrounds of black or white, which serves an aesthetic purpose because it elevates the drama inherent in the food itself. For example, our photo called Real Tomatoes Have Curves focuses on the tomato; it’s almost as though it’s looking right at you. The images in this chapter are not trying to evoke some set piece in a kitchen. They are portraits of a piece of food. It’s worshipping that thing as an object, as a thing unto itself.
Shrouded in its outer leaves, ordinary red cabbage transforms into something extraordinary. In the field, red cabbage is blanketed with a cloudy layer of wild yeast (the same is true of grapes). When cabbage arrives at grocery stores, the outer leaves are typically discarded, which is why consumers ordinarily don’t see the yeast. Nathan found this cabbage at the farmers’ market and instantly called it the most charismatic cabbage he had ever seen.
REAL TOMATOES HAVE CURVES
The tomato is not a vegetable but a fruit—a berry, to be exact. Although thousands of varieties exist today, the first tomatoes grew wild in western South America and Mesoamerica. Tiny and yellow, the fruits bore little resemblance to this curvaceous heirloom tomato. Spanish conquistadors introduced tomatoes to Europe in the mid-1500s, but three centuries elapsed before they were fully embraced.
From this ant’s-eye view, you can see a world in captivating detail, including the powdery wild yeast that coats the blueberry. A modified Cambo camera built with custom software precisely calculates and focuses each part of the image with a technique called focus stacking.
We can’t wait for you to dig into Food & Drink. It’s a book that we hope you’ll cherish for years to come. Order your copy from the Modernist Cuisine Shop today.