Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine Gallery makes food into art

Updated July 27, 2017 - 2:58 pm

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s that time of the year again when Robin takes off for his monthlong family trip to Europe. He’s winding up his trip this week, which began in Greece and covered the beauty of Italy’s Cinque Terre area and the wines and pastas of Tuscany. After a truffle hunt in the hills outside of Rome today (July 25) he’s moved onto the Eternal City to tour the Vatican and Sistine Chapel before returning home to Las Vegas.

In his absence, a great number of showbiz entertainers, celebrity VIPs, chefs, restaurateurs and Vegas dignitaries stepped forward to write their guest columns. Today, we welcome Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine. For years, Nathan was the right hand to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, yet always had a yearning for food, cooking and restaurant activities. He quit the giant computer company to follow his passion and created Modernist Cuisine, opening his first gallery of fine food photography and art cookbooks at Caesars Palace Forum Shops last month. It’s truly stunning creations.

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Every story has a backstory. Of course, not all backstories add to the message of the work itself. You can certainly enjoy Ansel Adams’s photo “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” without knowing that he caught the moment serendipitously while driving along a highway at dusk. But sometimes, the backstory of how a photograph came to be is not obvious from the work itself and does help inform how we experience the image. That’s why I want to share the backstory behind the images in Modernist Cuisine Gallery, which recently opened in Las Vegas.

When I decided about a decade ago to create the Modernist Cuisine cookbook series, I saw an exciting opportunity to do something new in food photography. It was an audacious goal — people have been taking pictures of food for well over a century and paintings of food were popular for many centuries before that. I wanted to show people the beauty of food, but do it in a way that had never been seen before.

We cut kitchen equipment in half to show people a look inside food as it cooks, captured alluring perspectives of food with research microscopes and turned simple ingredients like blueberries into stunning monoliths with macro lenses. I continually look for new ways to improve my techniques and equipment so that I can capture new types of shots and create higher-quality images. The results can be found at Modernist Cuisine Gallery in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.

For shots of food in motion, sometimes the moment I’m trying to capture only lasts for a millisecond. Early on, I tried capturing these images by clicking the shutter at just the right second, and sometimes I’d get a great shot. But for every hit, I’d have many misses, so I built robots to allow precise control of the timing.

My first shoot with the high-speed robots captured the wine shots, including “Intertwined.” I realized I needed to have precise repeatability in the way the wine glasses moved so that I could capture the exact moment when the splash looked its best. Human repeatability wasn’t good enough, so I built a wine glass catapult. It was followed by “saberbot” (for sabering champagne bottles), a “trapdoor” robot and a “condiment cannon” that blasts out liquids with a quick burst of compressed air.

To dial in the timing, I use a video camera that can record at 6,000 frames per second. I’ll set up the shot I’m after, then trigger the robot at the same time as the high-speed video camera. When I watch the playback, I can step frame by frame to choose the exact moment where the subject looks its best, like right before a wave front of ketchup is about to hit a sleeve of fries. Then, I take the timing of that frame and use it to trigger the high-resolution still camera at exactly the same moment. From there, I can repeat the timing, taking and improving every aspect of the shot, rather than relying on chance.

In embracing these new tools, I am following a path well trodden by other photographers. William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and others invented the photographic process, and a series of other inventors and photographic artists extended it. Each technological advance helped stimulate new images and art in the hands of photographers who saw its potential.

I hope that visitors to Modernist Cuisine Gallery will share the childlike wonder and curiosity that I feel when I look at these pictures — and enjoy telling the backstory of the prints on their walls.

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