Nathan Myhrvold calls himself the worst bartender in the world. He spills every drink he makes — and sometimes he does it with a purpose.
That purpose would be art.
Myhrvold is the former Microsoft chief technology officer who went on to found Intellectual Ventures and author the epic “Modernist Cuisine” cookbooks. In addition to being a physicist, mathematician, inventor and lightning rod in the world of patents, he also happens to be an accomplished photographer. On Friday, he opens his third Modernist Cuisine Gallery, in his hometown of Seattle, as a showcase for his unique and technologically superior images of, what else? Food.
Myhrvold’s award winning “Art and Science of Cooking” and “Modernist Cooking at Home” shed light on not just the technical aspects of creating modern dishes, but the art involved in capturing such work. Another book, “Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” and a touring exhibition, further proved that Myhrvold — a photographer since he was a young boy — had something to show for all of his interest and time around food.
The new gallery, a block from Pike Place Market, follows earlier locations in Las Vegas and New Orleans. Another is set to open in San Diego.
Inside the Seattle gallery, large, high-gloss prints of jumping cocktails and colliding wine glasses mix with close-ups of raspberries and blueberries, the stacked makings of a cheeseburger, a ketchup bottle exploding its contents onto French fries, landscape panoramas from the rolling farmland of Eastern Washington and much more.
“The pictures that you see all around here, are my attempt to show people a vision of food that they have not quite seen before,” Myhrvold said on Thursday, during a preview ahead of the gallery’s opening. “We all see food multiple times a day, but that doesn’t mean we really look at it.”
Myhrvold does look at his food in interesting ways, and he uses innovative equipment and techniques to capture his photographs. He builds robots to smash liquids together or sword the cork off a champagne bottle; he relies on precision timing by shooting through a camera he built in his lab, controlled by computers; he stitches together hundreds of images and many thousands of pixels to create high resolution works of art around something as simple as a tomato or a leaf of kale.
On one wall there are drinks jumping and spilling above a robot-activated platform that were captured with a very brief exposure — 1/10,000th-of-a-second duration. Across the room, an image of a glass of wine sitting in the middle of a vineyard on a starry night was shot with a four-hour exposure. Both are unique for their ability to show what can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Myhrvold’s 100-megapixel camera can be used to capture 1,200 separate images of a piece of food. Composited together by software, in a process called focus stacking, the number of bits in his kale image is equivalent to 500,000 iPhone photos, he said.
“I don’t view that technology is a barrier to art or to expressing emotion or creativity. I view it as a great enabler,” Myhrvold said. “And so if it allows you to see the details of a raspberry better than you could with a microscope in your eye or if it allows you to capture something in a tiny instance of time, I say, ‘Great!’ ”
There is a juxtaposition in the gallery among images that would appear to have been captured with relative ease, or with conventional equipment, and those which are clearly more involved, because of the movement of liquids or the apparent suspension of food items in mid-air. Others showcase cross-sections of appliances caught in the act of preparing food.
Wine glasses collide and red wine from each splashes together in an airborne dance in a photograph called “Intertwined.” Myhrvold called the catapult system to create the effect one of his most challenging, but he said he and his team got the best shot on the first take — but they still shot 200 more.
From a technique perspective, Myhrvold pointed to a picture of two fish as perhaps his “most normal.”
“This was taken at 5 a.m. in the morning in a fish market in Manado, Indonesia,” Myhrvold said. “I was in Indonesia to go scuba diving and I was walking around this fish market with a Canon digital camera and I took this handheld and this came out as good as anything I would take in the studio. But, in general, it does help having all of these other things.”
As for the rest of us — the millions of people with smartphones in their pockets that have become their daily cameras — Myhrvold does appreciate our desire to capture the food we love and eat. He’s certainly tuned into that social media phenomenon, even though our images of Instagram sushi or whatever else we’re eating are technically inferior to what he’s doing in the lab.
“It’s a testimony of how important food is to us,” Myhrvold said. “And that’s an interesting thing with respect to what people consider art. When I first opened the gallery, I would say, ‘It’s the only gallery in the world dedicated to pictures of food.’ And I might learn now why,” he said, laughing. “Maybe no one is interested in pictures of food! But that seems to be totally undercut by this notion of millions of people taking pictures of food.”
Food is an important part of many people’s lives. We identify as people who love food for various reasons, we travel for specific types of food. Whether you eat meat or not, whether you’d die for pizza or you live to sip the perfect drink, Myhrvold called his art an expression of himself.
“But you shouldn’t take it home,” he said, “if it’s also not an expression of you.”
Modernist Cuisine Gallery is located at 1403 First Ave. in Seattle and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Artwork is priced starting at $849. See more in this gallery video tour.