It’s not hard to imagine the 50-plus images from Nathan Myhrvold’s collection “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine: The Exhibition,” now on display at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, as anything but distinctly futuristic, ultra-high resolution photographs from some savory nethersphere.
With their oversized dimensions and matte black backgrounds on aluminum, the famous Microsoft executive’s strikingly precise and brilliant photographs of levitating ice cream scoops or the floating layers of a breakfast sandwich might be easily mistaken for images from an anti-gravity experiment.
Indeed many viewers may find it difficult to resist substituting their own faux-titles like, Herbs, A Space Odyssey.
But look again at the occasional image of dissected root vegetables, and you’ll also see occasional nods to 19th century botanical illustrations, even to classic painting within this decidedly 21st century, tech-heavy approach to photography.
“It’s a whole new way of looking at food,” says SoFAB President and Director Liz Williams. For Williams, Myhrvold’s work prompts viewers to think about food’s textures, color and patterns, such as magnified close-ups of blueberries, the skin of an onion or the crusted waves of a meringue pie. She points to one of her favorites, the kaleidoscopic crystallized vitamin C as an example of how Myhrvold’s images can challenge perceptions. “Most people look at this photograph and see either a bird’s feather or a moth’s wing,” she says. “The similarity makes you wonder about why the same patterns repeat themselves in nature, even where we don’t expect to find them.”
However, Myhrvold’s work isn’t only an unfettered look at nature. Many of the images have been calculated to catch a moment of motion, like an exploding egg or noodles suspended above the wok. It’s impossible to look at these photographs and not admire the technique, skill and discipline used to create them, not to mention gadgets. Not surprising, this emphasis on the photograph-as-experiment has meant that, until now, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” has been shown exclusively at science museums. Ironically, SoFAB is the first culinary museum to exhibit Myhrvold’s photographs of food.
In his introduction to the collection’s accompanying book (also oversized), Myhrvold writes that his art represents a deliberate departure from the reigning clichés and “set pieces” of cooking magazines and books — images designed to prompt sentimentality or cultural archetypes rather than honest examinations of the food itself. True to form, people, tables or other hints of humanity are almost entirely absent from Myhrvold’s work. What remains are the ingredients themselves and at times the machines that cook them — blenders, crock pots, woks, Weber grills all sliced cleanly in half and miraculously still holding on to their cutaway burgers and stews.
Myhrvold also rejects those critics who have called his images “food porn,” claiming his purpose is to inspire “childlike wonder and curiosity,” not fetishism. While a sense of delight is evident in the photographs, it may be false to say that Myhrvold hasn’t in fact created set pieces of his own, just ones that break from maudlin or precious depictions of hearth. There’s a lot of fancy footwork here: very expensive cameras, cutting-edge technology, and a team of helpers called the Cooking Lab Team that together feel like a scaled-down version of Skywalker Ranch. In fact, several reproductions of the graph paper drawings hang alongside images in the exhibit, offering peeks behind the scenes. Regardless, the humor of the clever prankster is evident in nearly all the images, and the pictures are presented with the spirit of spectacle and stunt, even magic.
In a food town where we often emphasize tradition, the deeply evocative and where a certain level of grit is worn as a badge of honor, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” offers a visual shift from our regular, at times entrenched way of thinking about food. Myhrvold invites us to take a fresh look at an intimate relationship we’ve engaged with for so long that we may have stopped seeing it.
The museum is coordinating with local schools to offer interactive workshops that fulfill new math and science or STEM curriculum requirements. For more information, contact SoFAB’s Education and Outreach Director Jennie Merrill, jennie@southern food.org.