Nathan Myhrvold’s six-volume compendium “The Modernist Cuisine” is already being hailed as a revolutionary book that will change the way we think about cooking. Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft and renown chef, spent years and millions of dollars to create the tome, which features stunning food photography by a young photographer you probably have never heard of. In our first installment of our new blog series “Things You’ll Never Photograph,” we talk to Ryan Matthew Smith who shot over 140,000 images over 3 years to produce approximately 2800 of the 3100 images in the book.
How did your interest in photography start?
I was wasting away in college with no particular direction when I took a black and white photography course on a bit of a lark. I found myself so interested in the craft that I would spends hours after class in the darkroom perfecting my technique. I didn’t see it as a viable career option at the time so it fell off for a couple of years for other pursuits. In a bit of cliche overly dramatic fashion, I made the decision to make it a career option a couple of years later when my house burned down. Upon hearing the news I was by far most upset about losing those countless prints from the CC class than anything else…seemed like a no-brainer that if I had that much passion for the work I should give it a go as a career. I promptly transferred into the photography program at AiS after that.
You graduated from the Art Institute in 2007, how did you get hooked up with Nathan Myhrvold so quickly after graduating?
The short answer is I answered a job listing on craigslist; which always seems to blow people away. The listing didn’t even mention the cookbook, or even a book for that matter! I sent in email in with a link to my website and was in for an interview a couple weeks later.
You mentioned that you hadn’t done a lot of studio work prior to the Modernist Cuisine? How did you approach learning on the job? Did you have other photographers with whom you consulted?
There wasn’t much time for research as the demand for photographs to fill out the design was very high so most of the learning was done on a trial and error basis. The first month I was shooting was around April of 2008 and maybe only a couple of the thousand or so I shot that month made it into the final pages.
My partner in crime during the learning process was our head chef, Maxime Bilet. Max handled food styling, scheduling, and was an absolute go to for cool photo ideas. We would spent a good deal of time talking after shoots about what was working and what wasn’t, as well as looking at examples in other cookbooks/photo books.
Nathan is a hard core photographer from what I understand. Did he come to the table with ideas of how he wanted to capture images? (i.e. sawing things in half as well as lighting styles)
Nathan was actually planning to shoot the entire book himself and had conceptualized the ‘cutaway’ concept long before I was hired. My first day at work was assisting Nathan at this house for the very first photo shoot for MC (which included the cutaway photo of the broccoli which graces the cover of Volume 2).
I just happen to be extremely lucky that he had a day job! After the project quickly grew in scope it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to shoot the photos while running Intellectual Ventures and leading the writing of the book, so the task got transferred to me. Nathan still does have over 100 beautiful photos in the book ranging from microscopy photos of vitamin C all the way to a giant glacier from Patagonia.
What sort of camera and lighting gear did you use?
We used Broncolor 3200 w/s power packs, and generally 2-3 broncolor pulso heads with 9″ reflectors. Softening light was generally done by bouncing off of walls or white cards.
There was a lot of experimentation with creating the cooking information. But clearly, there must have been a lot of experimentation with the photography as well. Can you tell us about specific examples?
Nathan had the idea to use Fourier’s heat equation written in fire as the opener to the chapter on heat. The challenge in this case is how do you write words in fire?!?!
To achieve the photo I first made an [Adobe] Illustrator vector of the heat equation and machinist Chris Love cut a stencil out of steel in the laboratory machine shop using a waterjet. To get the fire live and burning we first tried using flammable powders or liquids with fabric under the stencil and photograph the fabric as lit. It worked to an extent but the equation did not appear very legible in person, even less in 1/250th of a second. I changed the strategy by localizing the burning to a very small area. I ended up using a portable blow torch to burn some cotton fabric under the stencil red hot in small localized positions of each letter or character while triggering with a cable release in the other hand. I took about 400 photos during the process and used around 100 for the finished composite. Generally the photos were just stacked with a “Lighten” blending mode for each layer.
Can you talk about the planning of a given shoot? Were there pencil sketches for lighting?
I always kind of lit on the fly. What was very unusual about our shooting schedule was the extremely high volume of daily shoots. An average shooting day would include around 10 separate photo shoots and during kitchen prep time I would often run back to my computer for editing rather than plan the next shot. During some months we would snap over 10,000 photos! Most lighting set-ups were done in 5-10 mins with little tweaks during the shoot.
Did you have to coordinate the shooting dates with what they were actually cooking in the kitchen?
Maxime was the schedule master, it was amazing watching him organize the entire kitchen teams schedule at the same time as planning which photos needed to be shot when
Was there a virtually unlimited budget for the photography?
Luckily, Nathan already had all of the equipment I could ever imagine wanting so we didn’t have to go out and buy much. When I bring folks into the studio, they are always amazed at how low-tech everything looks! Working in the laboratory at Intellectual Ventures certainly had it’s perks which include a high speed video camera and a full machine shop (very helpful when you need to cut things in half)
Did you have other images that you drew inspiration from?
I’m always looking at photos whether it’s movies, on the web, in magazines, in books; I always pay attention to the style and look for inspiring moods, lighting, techniques etc etc
Did you handle all the post production?
I handled nearly all post work including photo composites, color correction, detail extraction, contrast. My assistant Melissa Lehuta did a large portion of the spotting for the book and Jimmy Johnson did some silhouettes.
How involved were you and Nathan in the printing and color proofing?
IOcolor in Seattle handled the prepress and Artron in China handled the printing of the book. I sent IOcolor the color corrected RGB files and they did the CMYK separations in the artron profile. From there IOcolor sent us color proofs of all the pages which I would then either approve or mark up where I wanted to see a shift. This went back and forth a few times and then off to the printers. Kim Christiansen of IOcolor went to China to supervise the prints running off of press and helped direct the pulling of pages when the press was running a tint shift.
How did you photograph the sniper rifle shooting the eggs? (gear, armorer, etc)
We needed a photo of a bullet going through ballistics gelatin for a sidebar in our gels chapter. After searching for a suitable stock photo we came up empty handed and decided to shoot the photo ourselves. A team of 4 of us which included lab scientists Nathan Pegram and Eric Johansen headed to the shooting range with a .308 sniper rifle, laptop, and a Phantom high speed camera. As luck would have it we got the ballistics gelatin photo in a single take. We still had daylight, chewing gum, and a row of eggs so I lined them up on a steel plate using the gum as adhesive and our shooter Deric hit them dead center with the bullet.
The resulting photo is 5 consecutive frames from the resulting high speed video. Basically the camera is constantly recording and saving 12,000 frames in a loop (in this case 2 seconds worth of video) and the trigger stops the recording (with a set delay) and you are left with 12,000 frames of recorded video to make slow motion videos. To see some of the videos, check out our blog at modernistcuisine.com.
How did you photograph the noodles jumping in the air out of the wok?
Well first thing was cutting off ⅓ of the burner and wok, which was done by our machine shop complements of Ted Ellis. From there Max made up a nice phad thai dish on the side while I got shots of the burner on with the empty cut wok. We then glued a velvet covered foam core card to the back of the wok and built up a set with the freshly cooking pad thai and put the two images together in Photoshop using a lighten layer for the flames. The only thing missing at this point was the action of flying shrimp, noodles, smoke and oil. To finish the shot Max cooked up another dish of pad thai on camera, throwing the noodles into the air to get some insane action. I used pieces from the shoot to finish off the photo.
The final composited shot
The decanter shot is pretty magnificent with the spiraling vortex. How many takes? Did you have to develop a technique to cause the swirling?
For this particular decanter we just had to pour enough wine at the correct angle to get the vortex moving. We actually only took about five shots of the vortex to close the photoshoot which included about 50 other images from a couple decanters (also some cool photos in there that didn’t make the book). When it came to showing the photos to Nathan at a meeting, I showed the most dramatic vortex and it was not approved based on the fact we were pouring the wine in much faster then is deemed appropriate. So we settled for a slightly less extreme version for the book 🙂
Photo of wine pouring too fast into the decanter didn’t make the book even though it had a lot of visual appeal.
The approved photo with the less aggressive vortex
This is a pretty high profile project. Has it led to more work opportunities?
I’ve had a few bites but I’m still working full time for The Cooking Lab and we are discussing some future projects so I’m hoping to stick around here for a while. I’m also looking to do some personal projects with a little down time before the next project.
Finally, what happened to all the food after you were done? You seem pretty thin to be around food all day.
You can probably blame that one on genetics, I just happen to be one of those people who can down 3,000 calories a day without working out and nothing seems to stick to me. I ate very well during the project 🙂
Photo by Nathan Myhrvold
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