It’s amazing how life can take you to completely unexpected places. A series of individually quite reasonable ideas, goals, and facts can utterly transform your context, transporting you to a world where the impossible becomes inevitable.
When I decided about a decade ago to create a cookbook, I saw an exciting opportunity to do something new in food photography—to portray food in new and unexpected ways that simultaneously draw readers in and illustrate the science at work in cooking. Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking was a big, crazy bet, as were its two sequels, Modernist Cuisine at Home and The Photography of Modernist Cuisine. But so far about 250,000 copies are in print worldwide across all editions. And the crazy bets keep coming: in November 2017 we released Modernist Bread, a six-volume, 2,500-page book all about bread.
Modernist Cuisine broke many of the rules for cookbooks, including how they should be illustrated. When I began working on the book, I wanted to explain the scientific principles that govern how cooking actually works and comprehensively cover all of the modern culinary techniques practiced by the best and most advanced chefs in the world. But it occurred to me that a conventional, text-heavy book on these topics might be a bit intimidating to all but a limited audience. I decided the book must also be visually captivating.
It was an audacious goal. People have been taking pictures of food for well over a century—and paintings of food were popular for many centuries before that. My team and I wanted to show people the beauty of food, but do it in a way that had never been seen before.
We bucked conventions for food photography, opting instead to cut kitchen equipment in half to show people a look inside food as it cooks, capture alluring perspectives of food with high-speed video and research microscopes, and turn simple ingredients like strawberries and grains of wheat into stunning monoliths with macro lenses. We custom-built cameras and lenses, developed special software for editing, and experimented with new photography techniques. My team and I hoped that the resulting images would captivate readers and make the book’s content come to life.
Almost immediately after our first book appeared, people started asking us where they could buy photographic prints of the photos. That seemed like a reasonable enough request, and we did include a few free prints with later editions as well as with Modernist Cuisine at Home, which we published in 2012. Encouraged by the feedback on our photographs, we decided to take some of the best images from our library of more than 200,000 and print them together, even larger and on nicer paper than in our previous books. The result was The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.
An exhibit followed, turning the pages of our photography book into larger-than-life art that traveled to museums in cities across the United States, including Seattle, Boston, and New Orleans. Some of our photographs have even been exhibited in art galleries in Le Havre, Milan, and Hong Kong. As the exhibit crossed the country, we heard from even more people wanting artwork—in the same sizes and formats they were now seeing on museum walls.
The photos connected with people who see food as my team and I do—as something that inspires passion and curiosity.
The photos connected with people who see food as my team and I do—as something that inspires passion and curiosity. My team and I looked into the idea of selling artwork, but we honestly struggled with the idea. Existing ways of distributing art weren’t the right fit for getting the photos into the hands of the people who wanted them.
That left us with just one way forward: to open our own gallery. We concluded that it’s the only way to show our pictures to people who might buy them, while also providing the right sales experience. That’s not surprising. You’ll find more and more brands, from Warby Parker to Tesla, are opening stores to directly connect with consumers. Brands that never had a storefront now do—you can visit the Microsoft or Apple store to purchase your next computer. Why? Because to present their products in the way they really want to, these brands need to have their own store. And so, the idea for Modernist Cuisine Gallery by Nathan Myhrvold was born.
But where? Many cities—Seattle included—have a part of town where the art galleries cluster. Some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, are big enough to boast of several such areas. Everybody knows that a gallery on Madison Avenue is going to be a different experience than one in SoHo or near the High Line in Chelsea. The trouble with gallery neighborhoods, which are the result of decades of development, is that they favor incumbents, not new entrants. It’s very hard for the new guy to break in.
Hence Las Vegas. People from all over the world travel to Vegas. The typical visitor stays in Vegas for just three days. So it really doesn’t matter how long your gallery has been in business; new things pop up all the time—it’s part of the Las Vegas experience.
Las Vegas has also become a destination for foodies. Sure, Napa Valley, New York, New Orleans, and the like are still foodie meccas, but where else other than Las Vegas can you find 10-foot-tall portraits of famous chefs lit up on towering hotels? Larger-than-life celebrity chefs join the ranks of entertainers and five-star hotels as major attractions.
Beyond its celebration of food, this city has been very receptive to the art community as well as artists who have created their own vision of how to sell their art. There are a number of artists, including photographers, who have managed to create their own branded galleries here and have been quite successful at it. Las Vegas embraces bold ideas and the people who take risks on them. For all these reasons, Las Vegas is the perfect place to hang out my shingle and see if people want to take home my food photography.
Will they? Time will tell. But as far as I know, no other gallery is dedicated solely to food photography. I think that my photography will speak to people for whom both the specific subject in the photo and the broader topic of food are important parts of their lives.
But, analytically, I can say that people definitely like food—all of our homes include a place to cook and eat. And they clearly also like photos of food—witness Instagram. There are more than 218,000,000 photos tagged as food on Instagram alone—it’s a small fraction of the number of food-related pictures people are sharing on social media platforms. There has never been a better time to love food, and we’re clearly seeing more people express that love than ever before.
Art that you have in your home or office should be something that delights and engages you on a daily basis. Art is also one of the ways that we project who we are to ourselves and the rest of the world. The art that we display, whether in private or public spaces, says something about who we are.
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” – Brillat Savarin
Brillat Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” Food is a significant part of our identity. What we eat has never been more important to us than it is today. It’s one of the ways that we define cultures, different groups of peoples, and ourselves as individuals. Our relationship with food is deeply personal, but also something that helps us build relationships us with others. Food as art is an expression of those values. I hope that my photographs allow people to be indulged and express how food makes them feel and who they are.
So perhaps there is an unfilled niche. On the other hand, I can’t look to industry norms for an answer. We faced the same issue years ago when we made a $625, 2,500-page cookbook. There was no precedent. That turned out well, and I’m hopeful this project will, too.
All I know is that, just as Modernist Cuisine became the cookbook I had long wish existed, this gallery will be the kind of place where I would like to shop. I am just self-aware enough to know that I have no objectivity on this topic. I’m the kind of person who does hang big photos of food in my home and office.
Art that succeeds expresses passion through a medium.