Sunday, May 30, 2010

Andrés Asturias: Peeling the Onion

Author David Lipsky's comment that "a book has friends before it has readers" seemed created for my book, and no one faster comes to mind than Andrés Asturias, photographer and owner of Estudio/A2 which, according to Daniel Chauche, is the only place to pay for Photoshop in the Isthmus.

Back to the beginning: In June 2009, while I was in Guatemala, Daniel pronounced my low resolution jpgs inferior. We had a meeting with the book's administrative staff and he told us all that we'd have to buy high resolution scans of my Kodachrome transparencies and Photoshop them. Everyone blanched. More money? More time?

Enter Andrés Asturias, a friend and colleague of Daniel. I didn't meet Andrés until September, but he had begun to assist with the technical end of the book early in the process, before we met. Andrés and his team at Estudio A2, Víctor Martínez and Cedrick Arenales, had googled scanning studios in the Washington area and recommended National Geographic, based on its reputation and its proximity to my house. And Daniel told me that Andrés was The Guy to do the Photoshop. Since I was saying "okay" to everything else Daniel was suggesting, there was no reason to break the streak.

The first rendez-vous with Andrés was meet and greet: we were both busy and I was running around Guatemala just before my classes resumed in DC. My only salient memory of that meeting was being assaulted by his three dogs who are the most affectionate canines ever encountered. The second time I met with Andrés, in November, things were getting serious. National Geographic had produced the 170 scans and I took them down to Guatemala along with my original chromes, for Andrés to use as comparison. Andrés and I spent five hours huddled in front of his Mac screen reviewing the images one by one.

What I really like about Andrés's Photoshop method is that he is not trigger-happy with Photoshop or cropping. He's kind of like that one in a million plastic surgeon (not that I would know) who makes you look better and whose work is imperceptible. We went through all the images, stopping only for coffee, and he labelled a light crop here and there, schmutz on the image, and danger signs on the color balance.

On that trip, I realized that Andrés did a lot more than Photoshop enhancement for photographers with boo-boos. As we were packing up, Andrés mentioned that he had photographed Holy Week at the beach. He pulled out a bunch of prints, and I was shocked, since these were great photos. Andrés then mentioned in passing that he had a show coming up in 2010, and then mumbled something about PhotoEspaña. Then, a propos of I forget what, he mentioned that his grandmother was a poet. He gave me a copy of her poems.

I realized that getting to know Andrés is like peeling an onion: it's one layer after another. Andrés's Arena Negra series, which I loved, was going to be a major exhibit in Guatemala, and PhotoEspaña was a highly competitive event. When I mentioned Andrés's grandmother to Minayú Zamora, she informed me that Luz Méndez de la Vega is Guatemala's premier poetess, and one of its most valued poets, period. I read her book twice on the plane home, and realized why.

During my next five trips to Guatemala, Andrés became a huge part of the book in ways unrelated to Photoshop or his grandmother. He contributed big-time to the layout; he and Lucía created a postcard advertising the book, which Andrés distributed all over Guatemala and Antigua; he wrote the legal copyright language at the end (blush; I'm a lawyer); he had Estudio A2 add a map; and we even spent a morning checking out alternative venues for an exhibit. When the Central Cultural de España offered up ExCéntrico for the exhibit, Andrés and his partner, Luisa González-Reiche, a talented graphic artist, took me on a tour of ExCéntrico to check out the space and the flow of photos.

Most significantly, Andrés created a Website for the book which indeed has given a lot of people a little taste of the book in advance. The Website is great, it even includes a "Virtual Museum" which includes a baker's dozen photos of friends and colleagues of mine from the 1980s, with a short description of the role each person played in shaping Guatemala during that period. When I asked Andrés how long he had spent creating the Website, he mumbled (he mumbles a lot when talking about himself), he said "a week, more or less." Luisa sort of snorted. Clearly, "one week" requires some multiplication.

All the work stuff aside, I am also grateful to Andrés and Luisa for opening up their home to me. The line between professional and personal time became blurred, to say the least, in the past few months, and time and again I found myself at their table, eating lunch or spearing carrot cake. In April, Andrés's parents, who are delightful, came over for coffee. His dad insisted that I meet the Italian cultural attaché; the next day, Andrés and I were off to the Italian consulate where we ended up spending two hours with Paola Viero, discussing how further to disseminate the book.

More recently, Andrés printed all the photos for the itinerant exhibition that is traveling to 12 municipalities through August, and the 40-print exhibit that will open at ExCéntrico in zone one on June 23. In addition, we are beginning to talk about the next edition of the book, a smaller, popular edition with more photos and just captions for text. I consider myself lucky to have Andrés on board for this next project. This is a guy with vision, and a guy who is going places.


  1. Que linda nota! Se la acabo de leer a Andres y se ha puesto rojo!!!

  2. Jean Marie your book is fantastic. I'll be at the presentation tomorrow in Guatemala City.