The Photography of Modernist Cuisine

With Heston Blumenthal being awarded another Michelin star for his restaurant, it seems like there’s no better time for art, food and science. This month sees the release of ‘The Photography of Modernist Cuisine‘ by Nathan Myhrvold, the author’s 3rd book, which looks at the art and science of cooking.

Taking photographs of a meal using Instagram is a far cry from these cross-sections of the insides of pressure cookers and saucepans and macro shots of fruits and fish. What I think is great about this book is the mere size of the photographs. Each double page spread measures at 26″ x 16.3″, much bigger than any lavish cookbook or Donna Hay magazine.

The close up images remind me of Edward Quigley’s six peas in a pod or Irving Penn’s Still Lives for Vogue, where the images are art photographs with food as the subject, observing the beauty and form of each item. Like Carl Warner doing creative things with food by building landscapes, this book uses food in a different, yet exciting way; the cut away pans are something new altogether! The perspective is completely different to anything seen before, especially in food photography. Advancements in food science and technology have allowed the photographer to capture what is happening inside a boiling hot saucepan – this definitely isn’t something we’d have seen in an 18th century still life painting.


Guest Post: Mark Menjivar talks about everything he ate for a whole year.

I’ve recently been in contact with Mark Menjivar, a US based food photographer, who documented everything he ate for a whole year and thought I’d share an interview I did with him.

With lots of people taking food photos at their tables, it was interesting to find a project that is purely documented in words, rather than pictures, taking away from the immediacy of “#foodstagrams” and actually considering food and diet in a much more thoughtful way.

Mark’s photographic project “You are what you eat” reveals the inside of people’s fridges. I like this project (and Peter Menzel’s Hungry Planet showing how much the world’s groceries cost) as visually, it shows people food in a way that it is familiar to them – would it take on a different meaning if displayed as a Spanish still life or graphically arranged ingredients like images in the Ikea Baking Book?

Here’s what Mark had to say about his work….

HGVT: What made you want to document everything you ate?
MM: One night I was talking to a dietician friend of mine and she suggested that I write down everything I eat for a few days and think about it. After three days I was really surprised and decided to try it for a week. After I week, I was totally hooked and decided to go for 365 days. From doing that there were two things that really shifted my life. The first was realizing that I was eating fast food way more than I thought. If you had asked me how many times I ate fast food a month, I would have said 3, maybe 4 times. I realized that I was eating it like 3 times a week–which is way more than I wanted. I was traveling a ton during those years! Second, it helped my wife Rachel and I recommit ourselves to growing food at home. Each season since we have maintained a good size garden.

HGVT: Are there images of every meal?
MM: I did not photograph my meals because I wanted to think about food in a different way. Who is growing the food? Preparing it? Where is it coming from? Is it food? What are the social implications of eating this? Is it good for me? Pleasurable? etc… The act of writing it down seemed to be a better way to enter into that.

HGVT: On your website the project ‘You are what you eat’, shows photographs of the inside lots of different peoples fridges. Does your ‘365 Days’ directly link to this project?
MM: It does! I don’t think I would have done this if I had not been immersed in that project. When I am working on a long term project I pretty much go full in. I talk to people about related issues, write down thoughts, experiment, try new things, interview people (formally and informally), read books, etc. I also try to explore the edges. Writing down everything I ate for 365 days was one of those explorations. Another was making audio recordings of people eating their favorite foods!

Street Advertiser | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Lives on $432 fixed monthly income.

Street Advertiser | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Lives on $432 fixed monthly income.

Carpenter/Photographer | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household | 12 Point Buck shot on family property

Carpenter/Photographer | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household | 12 Point Buck shot on family property

HGVT: Wow, that’s a very in-depth exploration of how people consume food! How do you think food photography can be used to portray social statements about diet?
MM: The hope that I always had for my project was that the pictures of the fridges would be a launching place for the imagination to explore our relationship with food and to ask some of the questions I shared above. I think we have passed that tipping point in society where food is regularly discussed and there are great places to have in depth conversation about food issues. I am definitely in the camp of ‘the more the merrier’ and think that thoughtful photography around food issues can definitely add to that conversation.

HGVT: I noticed on your website you published a ‘food journal’ – what was the thinking behind this?
MM: A European magazine contacted me about publishing some images from You Are What You Eat in their magazine and it turned out really bad. They cropped the photos, changed the captions, layered text over the images–and they were months late in sending payment! To turn that experience into something good, I took the money and created the food journal in collaboration with Kate Bingaman-Burt.


We released it in conjunction with a show I had at Ampersand in Portland, OR. All the money made from the sales went to an agricultural organization working with inner-city youth.

fj-3This journal shot is from a project I did called, The Pleasures of Eating. This was a one year, foundation funded, artist residency with the KIPP schools here in San Antonio. For it, I turned Wendell Berry’s classic essay, The Pleasures of Eating, into an instructional art piece. We kept food journals, dug up the front yard of the school and installed 2 large garden beds, made zines, cooked, invited farmers to come speak, explored the life history of food items, made videos about ingredients and more.

What a fantastic project! You can see more of Mark’s food projects on his website….


Food Photography now

There’s a lot of interesting things going on in food photography at the moment. With the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year just completing it’s second year and planning the third, food photography has really started to catch the attention of the masses. For some, taking a quick snap of your meal is becoming commonplace, so much so that in New York, some restaurants have banned people from taking pictures of their food in restaurants (Schroeder, S. 2013) Instagram is popular and using it to share photos of food seems to be one of the main things it’s good for (Lloyd, S. 2013) , with twitter and other social networking sites flooded with “#foodstagram”.

With food photography becoming so fashionable, the Observer Food Monthly Awards have added a new category this year; best food photography, urging eager food photography enthusiasts to enter; “We’d like to see your best work, whether you’re showing off a home-cooked meal, documenting a visit to a great restaurant or capturing the finest produce at your local farmer’s market.” (Grundy, G. 2013) It’s exciting to see where this will lead with all these recent developments adding to the history of food photography.  Perhaps now, more than ever, we will be looking at whether any past trends and techniques reappear.