Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Photography of the Modernist Cuisine

I don't quite remember when or where I found out about this book, at first. The important thing is that I found out. I have long known its author, Nathan Myhrvold, from when he was the big shot CTO in Microsoft, a position previously held by His Lordship, Bill Gates III. Nathan is not a dollar billionaire yet, but I reckon he can get around without having to sweat much for a living... with his $650M... Although this is at least 100 times less than Buffalo Bill himself, however, what the heck? It's only money! Still enough for his next hundred years, right?

In terms of personal fulfilment I guess Nathan seems quite a happy man. He's got two great passions in his life, besides his late day-job, I'd reckon. These are Photography and Haute Cuisine. For the former he seemed to have travelled the entire planet multiple times over, and shot photographs in places the rest of us only witness on National Geographic documentaries. For the latter he spent a year off in France, while a CTO, to learn how to cook the frog way... Good for him, and his lifestyle might also explain the general incapacity of Microsoft to properly keep up with Innovation. His long absences could have never happened under Jobs's watch if he happened to be working for Apple, that's for sure. No Ive sabbatical in sight, probably not even under Cook. You don't abandon the troops for a year's sabbatical if you are the commanding officer in charge of a raging battle against multiple enemies. No Sabbaticals for Feynman and his fellow scientists on the Manhattan project either. I worked long enough for various US bosses who never lost an opportunity to let me know, "if we can miss you for more than a week, we can miss you for ever!'. Right, Tommy? A 365 day Sabbatical in such a top job? At the hottest IT company in town? Blimey!

Anyways, Nathan seems to be quite a smart cookie, and whatever he got hold of, he managed to turn into a success story. So, he created this monumental work about his very own trend in cooking that he called Modernist Cuisine. A five volume giant in book form with cooking recipes, except that the recipes are only a (small) part of the story. Watch the Vimeo for a teaser taste.

Eventually, good ol' Nathan had the dough to turn his passion into a venture business with this Modernist 'thing' and we all wish him well, as from what I experienced myself, this is indeed something we never witnessed before in the world history of books since Gutenberg.

When I first read about it in a recent edition of the New Yorker (suddenly it came to me, it was indeed the New Yorker where I read about his books), I saw the reference to a separate book that he made about the Photography of his monumental undertaking. Indeed, the photography looked stunning, the sort I like a lot, as I found out in a variety of sources available, among other, at his homepage and on Amazon. Curious as I am, I really wanted to find out how he actually shot those supernatural photographs, used in his books, and other media that seem to be sprouting from his Chef league cooking (ad)ventures. So, I Amazoned his 'Photography of the Modernist Cuisine'. I picked it up at the US as they seemed to offer it a lot cheaper (including shipping and handling) than their European sisters (UK, DE and FR). Worth mentioning, when I ordered the book, I had no clue what its overall size or weight were. I thought it's just a book. Maybe a bit larger than usual, but, what the heck, a book is a book, right? We are not in the Middle-Ages anymore and Illuminated Manuscripts of 100+ pounders were long gone and hidden in some obscure musea storage space, right?

So much I knew... The postman arrived and left me a note to pick it up the following day, as I wasn't at home when he delivered it. Next day at 11 am I'm standing at the PO front desk waiting for the clerk to pass me the goods that she went to fetch from their storage. My eyes kinda popped out when I saw her arriving with a huge semi-transparent flexible plastic container with something huge in it. WTF was that?!! I thought, it oughtta be 'the book'. Still seemed hard to believe. Since when does Amazon deliver goods packed in clumsy plastic sacks? Once at home, mystery solved. The smart asses of our local Customs were curious to find out what kind of stealth missile was hidden inside the Amazon box, addressed to me all the way from somewhere in the US of A, and they literally ripped the package like their life depended on it. I've never witnessed the mess done on the Amazon box, ever before. Thankfully, ripping the outside package revealed an inside box (well done Amazon!) with a label 'Do not open'. Curiously enough, the local Customs Officer, who ripped the first package with so much hatred, seemed too pooped that he decided there were no threatening explosives or gold bars (whatever) inside the interior package, and he just threw it like this into the plastic container.

When I finally managed to get it out of there, and released it from a last protective foil layer, I found myself experiencing what skilled monks used to do daily a thousand years ago, working on Illuminated Manuscripts. The 'Book' gives real meaning to the term 'humongous'! Words are not enough. I put it on my kitchen table and went thru it page by page. It's the first time in my life I had to page thru a book literally standing up. I mean, if you sit down with the book open on a table in front, you have a very narrow view of the contents. You gotta stand up to experience it's grandeur. Page spreads are larger than A2, a single page is definitely larger than an A3 or even an A3+. I shot the picture posted above with two tape measures reading outside dimensions 34 x 42.5 cm!!! And added my hassie for size reference. Unfortunately, I didn't have a weight scale handy to weight it (a simple kitchen sample won't cut it).

Needless to say, the pictures are extremely well shot, simply gigantic, most shot with Myhrvold's gear, nothing more - nothing less than a Canon 5D Mark III (what else?). He seems to like shooting macro photography, and he often used microscopes to get inside the soul of his foodie objects. Actually, the concept of his culinary books is quite unique. I wish we all had time to study this 21st Century Bible thoroughly, as there is a myriad things to learn about food. There's even a more concise version called Modernist Cuisine at Home. See the references at his homepage to find out more. There's a deep preview of the book at Amazon's too. However, even that 'smaller' version is not what you'd call 'easily manageable' by anyone less than a Sumo fighter. Nathan likes them big, one could safely claim.

However, I was strikingly surprised about something, but at the same time I felt quite happy about. You'd reckon a loaded individual like Nathan, with deplorable amounts to spend on pastimes, would have used the crème de la crème in photographic gear. At least a bunch of Hassies, or even Phase One backs on Sinar Large Format bodies. Not true. He merely used simple Canon DSLRs, actually not even the 1DX, but the 5D instead, and only a few lenses (180, 100 and 50 mm with macro). I use almost identical gear (I got the 135 instead of the 180, the rest are same). Besides, I am not that much into macro as he does. BTW, the 5D is used a lot by many other big shots. One other example is Douglas Kirkland, who became famous shooting Marilyn Monroe for Look.

The other surprising thing was that Nathan used the same post-processing like many of us gifted amateurs do... that is, Photoshop, Lightroom and Helicon Focus for Focus Stacking! Also, panoramic stitching in Photoshop is a thing he likes much. Techniques used for high speed photography and the like seemed quite common too. They had a hell of a challenge though cutting through their cooking gear and putting stuff inside to demo what happens when one cooks. In some shots they used dozens of frames layered in Photoshop to simulate cooking processes as if someone was inside the pans and pots and ovens, watching the cooking unfold. Very educational material indeed, but not what subject matter experts would quite call 'artistic photography'. Simply extremely sharp and well lit objects demonstrating what happens during cooking. Myhrvold and his photographers/stylists/chefs actually help us crawl inside the mystery parts of cooking and live to tell our grandchildren about.

In this venture, Myhrvold somehow proved that one doesn't necessarily need to be a dollar multimillionaire to start a project like this. A Kickstarter crowd funding would probably suffice. It only needs guts and passion. Like so many other things in life. And it also needs the genius of a man, who doesn't only have ideas, but also knows ways to make it happen. 'Ability to execute', like we used to call it in the corporate lingo. I was very pleased to see how he did it, but also felt deeply envious of the lad. Looking at him dressed like a chef, the ex-CTO of Humongous and Almighty Microsoft, you suddenly realize that software development frameworks, operating systems and Office Suites are not his thing. He probably did that bit to acquire the dough from share options and eventually seek to realize his dream. Only for that reason, sharing a part of his passion, I'd go buy his other book too, as in mine there's no recipes at all. Only photography and how he shot it.

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