Nathan Myhrvold On The World Premiere Of Modernist Cuisine's Photography Exhibit

By: 
Leslie Kelly

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine: The Exhibition opens Saturday at the Pacific Science Center, showcasing the celebrated images produced by Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of Modernist Cuisine as well as the founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures. The former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer turned renowned food scientist, Myhrvold dissects and deconstructs food, cookware and even appliances to reveal scientific processes occurring in one of the most universal commonplaces: the kitchen.

Each image invites guests inside the often hidden scientific world of cooking. Close-ups of Vitamin C crystals; cross-sections of kettle grills harboring smoking embers and sizzling meats; an exposed blender filled with red tomatoes, all reveal the intersection of art and science.

Produced by the extraordinary team of chefs, scientists and photographers in the Bellevue-based kitchen laboratory, the photos found inside the exhibition are from the forthcoming book, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine

“We are excited and proud to be the first venue to display the fresh, stunning photography of Nathan Myhrvold and the Modernist Cuisine team,” said Bryce Seidl, President & CEO of Pacific Science Center. “Each image showcases extraordinary photographic technologies that expose us to the science and beauty of food and its preparation in a visual feast for the eyes.”

Seattle Magazine recently interviewed Myhrvold, focusing on photography--Ansel Adams was one of his early role models--and discovered that, yes, he’s one of those folks who takes pictures of meals at restaurants:

Seattle Magazine: Which came first… your love of photography or love of food?

Nathan Myhrvold: Mom says I loved food in the high chair, so that was well before I picked up a camera.

SM: What was your first serious camera?

NM: When I was about 13, I found an old 35 mm Kodak Rangefinder at a Salvation Army and bought it for $2. It was considered a top of the line camera in the 1940s. I still have it.

SM: When did you set up a dark room?

NM: Right away, that was part of the fun. We had a guest room in the back of the house with a bathroom and I painted it black, every surface including the toilet. I learned one of the fundamentals of life with that project: That it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.

SM: What were some of your first subjects?

NM: It was all landscapes. I wanted to be Ansel Adams. I actually met him. He gave a lecture at UCLA and my Mom got me a ticket and I met him after the lecture.

SM: It’s a long way from Ansel Adams to the Modernist Cuisine Lab.

NM: Yes, it’s different in lots and lots of ways. It's not landscapes, though some are shot as if it’s a landscape. In his day, Ansel Adams was a trendsetter and was on the edge of the current technology. It’s easy to think of him as an old school guy, but he really was on the cutting edge.

SM: What was the idea behind the photography for the book?
NM: I really wanted to explain what happened inside when things cooked. I originally planned to do it with illustrations, but I got some pans and cut them in half. I took a couple photos and it actually worked. Those pictures--of carrots and broccoli--are in the show.

SM: What’s the piece of equipment used to cut pots and pans in half?

NM: It’s called a Water Jet. I bought one when I was building a house and when I later sold it to a guy, part of the deal with him was that if I needed him to cut something, he would do it and he did. It can cut almost anything, whether it’s paper thin or very thick metal. It’s used in machine shops, which I love almost as much as I love food and photography.

SM: Walk us through the process of doing the photographs?

NM: Originally, I was going to do all them, but I have this damn day job, so we hired an assistant from an ad in Craigslist. Ryan Matthew Smith was an Art Institute of Seattle graduate and he ended up taking more of the photos, with my direction. We collaborated. For one of the more memorable shots, we cut a blender in half and then I had to figure out what food to put in there. We took tomatoes that had been partially cooked and painstakingly packed them in there. Used needles to arrange them. Toward the bottom of the blender, we used tomato paste to keep them from getting smashed. I got them all arranged and fell out twice, but eventually it worked. That one took about half a day and it turned out exactly how I imagined it would. Others, including the salmon shoot, took much longer.

SM: There are new shots in the photo book. Is it all still a work in progress?

NM: Yes, we keep developing recipes and taking pictures of interesting places. I love farmers markets and there are bunch in the book. We go to Bellevue all the time because it’s over here, and Pike Place Market is the mother of all markets and I love the market in the U-District. Seattle had farmers markets before it there were trendy. One of the pictures in the show is a cocoa pod from a farmers market in Hawaii, in Hilo. There are some photos from a famous fish market in Indonesian.

SM: Do you take photos in restaurants with your iPhone?

NM: I usually use my big cameras, but I don’t use a flash. I won’t do it if the restaurant has a problem with it. But what I like about it is that it helps me remember what I actually had. I might send a photo to the culinary team and tell them we’ve got to figure out how to make this dish.

Entry to The Photography of Modernist Cuisine: The Exhibition is included with the price of general admission, free for Pacific Science Center members.

For ticket prices and more information, dial 206.443.2001 or click to pacificsciencecenter.org.