Art Tech

Art and Commerce Collide at Modernist Cuisine Gallery

Nathan Myhrvold’s food photography gallery, just a block from Pike Place Market, is certainly novel. But it aspires to more.

By Stefan Milne December 4, 2018

Modernist Cuisine Gallery in downtown Seattle. 

You can see blueberries so large that flecks of yeast stipple their surfaces like grains of sand clinging to beach balls. Or raspberries in such microscopic detail that they appear beaded, fuzz-covered, with alien antennae (former flower stems) reaching from them. Or the juice vesicles of a cut lime abstracted into what looks like a mountain range rendered by Dale Chihuly.

The wonder you feel at Modernist Cuisine Gallery—the new Pike Place Market–adjacent food photography shop—is less like that of seeing a Diane Arbus exhibit and closer to what you’ll get watching Planet Earth.

The gallery, which opened November 30 at 1403 First Ave., is the latest project of Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft chief technology officer turned polymath, patent hoarder (his firm accrued 95,000, estimated Forbes in June), and leader of a major food science think tank. The six-volume Modernist Cuisine he co-authored is the In Search of Lost Time of the immersion-circulator set: Few read the whole thing, but damn if it doesn’t look impressive on a bookshelf. Last year he released the five-volume Modernist Bread

Blues by Nathan Myhrvold. 

The books rely heavily on food photography, and Myrhvold says people were constantly asking for prints, so last year, in Las Vegas Myrhvold opened the first location of Modernist Cuisine Gallery. Another followed in New Orleans, and a fourth is now planned for San Diego this winter. At a press preview last week, he discussed the complicated technical aspects of the images. He built his own 100-megapixel camera. He uses software to layer thousands of shots into a single aggregate image, so those blueberries are entirely in focus in extreme close-up. He uses robots to fling balloons of coffee and cream at each other and pop them at the right split second so the liquid orbs can crash together above a mug.

He also spent the preview situating his work in art photography history: “Food, although it’s omnipresent in our lives, historically hasn’t been much of a topic for art.” He mentioned painted still lifes, then Edward Weston and Irving Penn—both makers of notable food photos—then deflected that their culinary shots were a “subversive thing that was a small part of what they did.” 

Oddly, to illustrate the dearth of food art photography, he pivoted from lauded American fine art photographers to single-subject coffee table books. He undertook some research on Amazon (not that odd, I suppose, for a former Microsoft guy), looking for photography books on various subjects. He found plenty of books of naked women, horses, cars, dogs. “How many large format coffee table books are there of food? None, zero.” His 2013 book The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (where many of these shots first appeared), he submits, was the first.

Intertwined by Nathan Myhrvold. 

Yet, when the food isn’t captured in such radical close up that it’s nearly abstracted (the blueberries) or wholly abstracted (the lime), Myhrvold’s photos appear less like dazzling snaps from the microscopic beyond and more like very polished advertising. Jim Beam and Tanqueray take note: Slap a logo on one of Myhrvold’s liquor shots—an olive diving into the contents of a martini, its contents splashed into a constellation of glinting droplets, or a glass of bourbon and a cigar lounging above Bourbon Street—and you’ll have the most resplendent liquor ads in the business. His work with wine splashing against white backgrounds might put you more in mind of Dyson carpet cleaners.

Perhaps the silliest photos in the collection—especially now that they are hung in an actual gallery—are those referencing iconic art. Pizza ingredients form a sort of person, quoting Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s figural food paintings. A can of Campbell’s tomato soup hits the surface a tomato juice pool. Andy’s Plunge it’s called. 

Though most shots don't nod to famous art so overtly, a boilerplate Warhol allusion executed with technical verve still feels like a good distillation of much of the gallery: Nathan Myhrvold, fledgling artist, is dramatically outpaced by Nathan Myhrvold, inventor and technician.

Andy's Plunge by Nathan Myhrvold. 

I asked Myhrvold about the soup can. He called it "an homage.... a slightly comic reference to the Andy Warhol thing. But it wasn't that I'm doing advertising photography for Campbell’s.” He laughed. "That said, we recently had someone come into another one of our galleries and buy those pictures and it turns out they're a descendant of the founder of Campbell's soup.”

Maybe commercial food photography has so skunked my appreciation of food shots that I can't escape the advertising funk. Maybe the sheer gloss of Myhrvold’s work makes his Campbell’s ad feel more like the soup brand's own Warhol-referencing commercial than the original paintings, which were iterated 32 times on the gallery wall, each hand-painted. Maybe, precisely, that hand is what feels most absent. Myhrvold pointed to a cabbage that he’d bought at Bellevue Farmer’s Market, its surface paled with wild yeast. “It shows fingerprints! So you have to look really carefully out of a box of cabbages to find the one that doesn’t have all the fingerprints!”

Funny, since when I’d looked at that shot, the smudged yeast—that human touch, captured with the technology’s startling clarity, invoking the actual narrative of our food more than some Platonic ideal of an untouched cabbage—was my favorite part.

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