Nathan on the Photography of Modernist Cuisine

Nathan Myhrvold may be a scientist, but even he describes the cutaway photos found in Modernist Cuisine as magical. Take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes action as Nathan describes the thousandth of a second in which the photos were taken, and what ensued after that second had passed!

If you would prefer to watch the video on YouTube, you can view it here.

An Exhibit of Photography from Modernist Cuisine

The first public exhibition of photography from Modernist Cuisine is open through 14 August in Hong Kong. Sixteen images from the book, printed in large format, are on display on Chater Bridge and East Bridge, Central. For a map and contact information, see the write-up at CNN Go.

Accompanying the exhibition is the “Taste Matters New Recipe” Competition. Create your own recipe featuring one of the ingredients on display in the exhibition. Chefs from several of Central’s restaurants will select winning dishes in each of the 10 ingredient categories. The chefs will then reinterpret the winning recipes and serve the resulting dishes in their restaurants for one month. All winners will also receive HK$10,000 worth of gift certificates. For more details on how to participate, see the competition website.

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 3

Arriving at Our Style

[See part one of this series for rec­ol­lec­tions by pho­tog­ra­pher Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team, and part two for his account of the lessons he learned about shooting food.Ed.]

One question people ask me again and again is: “Why did you choose to shoot most of the images for Modernist Cuisine on a solid black or white background?” There is no simple answer to this. Five main factors drove us toward this approach as the best solution for our design.

  • Efficiency
    MC is a really big book, it is heavily illustrated, and we had just a couple of years to complete the photography. So every day I had to complete a huge volume of shots (we took some 147,000 during the course of the project). Having a solid, consistent background kept the shooting moving along quickly. We had to light just the subject, not an entire set, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time setting up lighting.
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The solid black also allows for maximum contrast for certain subjects
  • Consistency
    One of the design challenges for a multi-volume work like Modernist Cuisine is the need to unify the diverse parts of the book with a common visual language. For a book of such wide scope with so many photos, common type styles and illustrative elements aren’t really sufficient, the images need to all share some common “look” so that readers never turn the page and suddenly feel like they have dropped into a different book. By using a small number of backgrounds, we hoped that photos spanning a wide range of subjects would nevertheless share a family resemblance.
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Especially nice for liquids, a solid backlight can really bring out the fine details of a splash
  • Flexibility
    Many chapters in Modernist Cuisine are chock-full of complex layouts, in which half a dozen or more art and text elements must fit on the page in a clear and attractive way. These jigsaw puzzles are a lot easier for the designer to solve when the photos have a solid background that matches the page. Photos in which the subject extends to the edges of the frame, what photographers call “full bleed”, images effectively limit design options to devoting most or all of the page to a single photo or segregating the images in boxes. Photos on solid white or black backgrounds, in contrast, can float around text blocks and run smoothly off the page.
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When filling a spread with annotations, a solid background helped keep captions easy to read
  • Isolation
    Throughout the book, but especially in the many step-by-step photo sequences, we tried to maximize the clarity and impact of the photographs by emphasizing the foreground subject. We found that with the background blank, the reader’s eye is naturally drawn to the focal point of the image, which makes the step-by-step instructions much easier to follow.
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Keeping the viewer looking at the intended focal point is key for step-by-step photographs
  • Style
    I have always preferred a minimalist approach to photography. I like the subject to stand alone as the center of attention. Solid backgrounds thus resonated with my personal aesthetic.
One of my personal favorites from Modernist Cuisine

Of course, every design choice has its trade-offs. Our initial attempts to shoot on white paper and black velvet left some subjects looking like they were floating in space. We fixed this problem by changing shooting surfaces to white or black glass. The glass throws up subtle reflections that ground the subjects.

 

That solution brought its own challenges, however. The reflections were often too strong, sometimes even mirror-like in intensity. So we simply toned down the reflections in Photoshop by using gradients and soft paintbrushes.

A subtle reflection helps provide a sense of ground

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 2

Climbing the Learning Curve

[See part one of this series for recollections by photographer Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team.]

After editing photos for a couple of months, we realized that we would need quite a few more images to flesh out the layouts of the first few chapters of Modernist Cuisine. Nathan, however, was increasingly busy with both his day job and author duties, so much so that he had almost no time to generate new photos. I was asked to do more shooting; it wasn’t seen at the time as a shift in the lead photography role, just a temporary necessity.

A shot from my first day of work on the book
A shot from my first day of work on the book

To make it easier to shoot freshly prepared dishes, we decided to set up a photo studio around the corner from the newly constructed research kitchen at the Intellectual Ventures laboratory. Our head chef, Maxime Bilet, served as lead food stylist and schedule master for the photo shoots.

Another first-day shot
Another first-day shot

The first months were quite the learning process for Max and me. I had just earned my photography degree from the Art Institute of Seattle, but still I had very little studio experience, and zero experience shooting food. Max had an art background and experience plating food, but only for diners, never for the camera.

The best photo from my first shoot
The best photo from my first shoot

Back then, I didn’t know much about Max or even chefs in general. During one early photo shoot, I saw a fly buzz around and land on the cutting board we were about to photograph. I quickly grabbed the chef’s knife from Max and chopped down on the cutting board as if wielding an axe. Whack!

I cleaved the fly clean in half. Amazed at my feat of dexterity, I grinned over at Max, expecting validation of my daunting skill. Instead, I was met with a stern glare that said “don’t ever do anything like that again.” It turns out chefs’ knives are finely crafted tools and are not meant to be whacked like axes on cutting boards.

Who knew?

The *right* way to use a chef's knife
The right way to use a chef’s knife

Those first few months were like a crash course in cooking, fine dining, and what is (and is not) acceptable in a kitchen. Every day I learned new lessons about the details of gourmet and modernist techniques; knowledge that turned out to be absolutely necessary for both shooting and selecting the photos we used to illustrate step-by-step procedures in the book.

After a month, our style starts to click in place
After a month, our style starts to click in place

Although I started with the cooking skills of a typical American college student, knowing little more than what I had read on boxes of dried pasta, I had to learn quickly what a PID controller is, the difference between braising and pot-roasting, the names of exotic foods such as Buddha’s hand (a citron fruit), and myriad other bits of specialized information.

Buddha's hand citron
Buddha’s hand citron

Luckily, I was working side by side with a team of talented chefs who were happy to share such knowledge and correct me when I missed some important point.

Today I am much smarter about food than I was. I still might not be able to reproduce in my own kitchen all the amazing dishes created by the chefs on the Modernist Cuisine culinary team, but three years of working with them has given me much greater appreciation of their incredible skills and understanding of their techniques. And I’ve also learned how to stay out of their way and respect their equipment!

Maxime has a talent for making food look stunning
Maxime has a talent for making food, such as this cocoa tajarin, look stunning

Vote on the Prints You’d Like to See Included with MC

[UPDATE May 19: The votes are in and tallied, and the winners are:

  1. Pectin falling from orange
  2. Levitating cheeseburger
  3. Pot roast cutaway
  4. Frying egg

We’ll be including prints of these stunners with every copy of Modernist Cuisine in a future printing. Thanks for participating!]

We’re plan­ning to include two or three 8 x10 prints of some of our most iconic pho­tos along with the books in a future print­ing of Modernist Cuisine. We invite your help in decid­ing which pho­tos to bun­dle with the book. Check the boxes next to your favorite three images from the selec­tion below, and then click the “Vote” button to submit your choices. We’ll select from among those that get the most votes. The poll closes on May 18 at 5:00 p.m. PDT.

[poll id=”1″]

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 photo micrographs 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

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Food Styling

In Part One of this three-part series, I described how we developed the recipes for Modernist Cuisine. In this second installment, I will shed some light on how we captured the high-quality, amazingly vivid photographs found in the book.

Most of the credit for the imagery in Modernist Cuisine goes to Ryan Matthew Smith, our photographer, who seems to make every frame explode with detail and vibrancy. But for every photo that causes a reader to say, “That’s crazy; how did they do that?” a member of the kitchen team likely did something risky to get that shot.

One photo in particular has attained near-legendary status due to its level of danger: the Pad Thai cutaway. The picture is already impressive because of the use of the cutaway technique, a method frequently employed throughout the book. (We have the luxury of working near a machine shop, so anything that a chef might want cut in half, such as an appliance, can usually be sliced within a day or two.)

The famous Pad Thai Cutaway photo features a cutaway wok with all of the ingredients for pad thai suspended above it in mid-flight, including the noodles. To capture the realism of noodles being wok-fried, Max and Ryan had to toss all of the components, in smoking-hot oil, as high as possible into the air. This is a feat that turns out to be akin to juggling napalm.

The Pad Thai Cutaway features a halved wok containing sizzling hot oil, noodles, and the dish’s other components.

While no chefs were harmed (much) in capturing images for the book, it is important to note that for every remarkable shot that graces the pages of Modernist Cuisine, someone on the kitchen team spent hours making it work, often by doing something many people would consider crazy.

Check back again soon for the final installment of this three-part series, in which I’ll explain how the kitchen team developed the parametric recipes and tables found in Modernist Cuisine.