As Nathan Myhrvold explained recently, his landmark cookbook project “Modernist Cuisine” represents the marriage of two things he’s loved since childhood.
“I thought maybe I can combine my love of cooking with photography,” he said to a group of Seattle journalists, “and come up with a way to illustrate the book such that it gets people involved and sucks them into the book with great pictures, in addition to having the text.”
At $625 a set, the six-volume beast — an exhaustive compendium of photos, recipes and essays covering the science of food preparation — was an unlikely hit. Despite hiring a staff and building out a photo studio/test kitchen, the project turned a profit. Forbes magazine has speculated the already-made Microsoft millionaire netted in excess of $5 million on the project.
That’s not to mention the profits from the 100,000 copies he sold of the follow-up, “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” at $140 a throw. And now there is “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” itself a formidable volume but the cheapest thus far, at $120.
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Or, you can save yourself $100 and head over to Pacific Science Center to check out the photos in an even larger format. Think blueberries the size of beach balls.
The scale of the images is transformative, and Myhrvold acknowledged that the goal was not simply to entice.
“I think a lot of our photos are delicious and appetizing, but some aren’t. There are some that are disgusting when you find out what they are.”
Myhrvold pointed to a close-up photo of mac and cheese as an example of the former, and a highly magnified image of a trichinella worm embedded in pork flesh as the latter.
But truth be told, mac and cheese probably shouldn’t be viewed at this scale — the cheesiness is overbearing. In fact, much of the fetching “I want to eat that” quality of, say, magazine food photography is absent; but in many ways, the photos reach for something more, an aesthetic value beyond appetite.
Food photography, Myhrvold said, “is commercial photography, but it’s one that doesn’t get as much love as architectural photography, fashion photography, photos of celebrities. Tons of other kinds of commercial photography are treated more as an art. Food photography usually isn’t.”
In size and quality, the pictures are reminiscent of the work of German photographers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. And the way they freeze motion evokes the groundbreaking work of Harold “Doc” Edgerton.
But the true artistic ancestors to Myhrvold’s work are the food still lifes of 15th-century Flemish Baroque painters. Like those images, which often depicted larders of fish, fruit and game, there is an opulence to the “Modernist”photographs both in their aesthetic and in their production. The look of the convolutions of raspberries at this size is lavish, but so is cutting in half an $8,000 Viking range to take a picture of its inner workings.
Of course, Myhrvold is aware of the swanky nature of his pet project, and said that the show was one way to make the work accessible.
“With a show like this,” he explained, “we’ll have all kinds of people come in — kids, all kind of people who wouldn’t be in the market for a multi-hundred-dollar cookbook.”
Brian Thomas Gallagher: firstname.lastname@example.org