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Monday, May 6, 2019

Crit: ATMTX Photo, On the Street: India

On Kirk Tuck's recommendation, I acquired a copy of this book.

If you like the preview, you'll like the book. It's pretty simple!

I like the book. It's not a book I would ever have made, but I am pleased to possess it. The author (not identified beyond the identifier ATMTX PHOTO in the book, but I believe named Andy) talks about his design inspirations on his blog, here, notably the use of full bleed, and double-truck pictures, and a ruthless willingness to rotate 90 degrees to print horizontals on a vertical page.

The system works just fine. It's hard to visualize how it's going to work on screen as you lay out a book like this, but it turns out that with a physical book one turns the thing 90 degrees as necessary, almost without thinking. It feels perfectly natural after a little while.

Blurb's trade books, especially on the uncoated paper, do not have great blacks. I do a thing with a curves adjustment to shovel a little contrast and depth into the blacks which I feel strengthens them a little visually, but it might just be voodoo. Andy either doesn't mind the weak blacks, or just decided to live with them. The pictures read as slightly flat, but that's just a quibble. Content is king. If Steidl can say "fahk zee midtones" we are allowed to print with weak darker tones.

The photos themselves are a blend of vernacular and more formal. Everything is recognizably street, nothing is posed, of course. Some pictures are more of a chaotic jumble, and some are more formally arranged masses of tone. I feel like a few of the pictures might have benefitted from some post-process color filtration. Sometimes a person's hand is almost lost in the chaotic mass of similar tones that are visually behind the hand, that sort of thing. Perhaps, though, this is intentional.

The pictures generally seem to work. Whether I would apply a "red filter" to this one, or crop that one differently, or punch up the shadows of yet a different one is immaterial. The book "reads" fine, it makes sense to me. It reveals something to me.

Full marks for design: simple, nice looking. There a couple pages of frontmatter, which so many people leave out. The typography is simple. The chapter/section beginnings burn a couple of pages attractively, usefully, rather than rudely dumping you into the next block of photos in an effort to save money. You get a lot of pictures for your money here, but it does not feel crammed full, or amateurish.

It's a bunch of photos, 123 according to the author, a few lines of text at the beginning of each section to set the stage. The organizational structure, while uncomplicated, works and was of interest to me.

So, onwards to the content.

Andy has built this thing as five sections, or chapters, more or less in chronological order of a short trip he took to India. What astonished me most about this book is the way Andy conveys his (his? an?) experience of India over such a miniscule visit, during which visit he was actually working at his job as well. Perhaps he has been many times, though? I am not sure. At any rate, I felt something authentic and fairly deep from the book.

Each section is more or less an unordered cloud of pictures from some segment of his trip. All are concerned with a view of the authentic "street" life of where Andy happened to be at that time. Each section can be taken separately, but it makes sense to look at the first section, then the second, and so on. There is a logic to this flow, albeit not a strict one. Within each chapter, each picture (or, really, each two-page spread) can be taken by itself, without concern for ordering, as far as I can tell.

The blend of what appears to my white eyes as "authentically Indian" with "western influence" was fascinating to me. Almost all the men wear jeans, but not quite. There is at least one instance of more traditional legwear, which appears to be a dhoti, worn by a fellow in a work crew consisting largely of jeans-wearers. Western brands show up in the backgrounds constantly, and so on. The balance feels, to this westerner, "right," it feels as if "yes, that is probably how it really is."

An element that appears regularly: a two page spread of a pair of photos taken a few seconds apart. I loved this. It imparts, I don't know, some sense of motion. Some sense of being present. It's a beautiful idea, and one I intend to steal.

In general, Andy is quite good with spreads. The temporal pairings are, I think, critical to the weight of the book. The others are merely pleasing graphical pairings of the usual sort, which make the book more visually appealing but are not important to meaning as such.

Much of the flavor is of functioning chaos. Not a society that struggles through chaos, nor yet a society that is chaotic, but simply a society that exists inextricably intermingled with a certain kind of chaos. It strikes me as maybe similar to the chaos of color and materialism that characterizes Las Vegas, or a standard-issue enclosed North American Mall. There is chaos, it exists, but we are used to it. It does not much impede our use of these places, it does not much register. We are not chaotic at the Mall, nor is our existence at the Mall choatic. The Mall is chaotic, we are not, we exist in the Mall, surrounded by chaos we barely register while we shop, eat, and pee.

I found a strong sense of presence in this book.

Well done, Andy!


  1. I love Andy's book. I think it's very cool.

  2. Thank you very much for your kind review. I'm not a book making expert but I have some interest in design, which I applied as best as possible.

    When I was in high school in the 80's, we had a dinner guest who was in advertising. He talked about the importance of fonts and typography, which had a lasting effect on me. The blurb tools didn't have all the fonts and weights that I wanted, but I found something clean and simple.



  3. Yes, it's nicely done. There's a slight perversity, I think, in photographing India, of all places, in B&W, but it does give a sense of unity to the book. An old friend was touring through India last year, and posted some interesting stuff on his travel blog (https://robertfuke.blogspot.com/) but had the opposite problem: the colours are overwhelming!


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Are you just looking at the title of the post? I underlined the book title, but that's only because it's a book title. The "post title" on the main page of my blog is always supposed to take you to the blog post.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I don't like the preview. The design is clunky, and the picture editing um ... was there any? I don't get the feeling that this dude connected with the subject, beyond what any rando tourist might.

    1. The edit is certainly "loose" or "generous" but I think it works. It's a mass of photos which, I felt, gets at something somewhat different than 2 or 3 or a dozen very carefully selected pictures would have.

      I liked the design just fine, as noted, of course.

      But, horses for courses!

  6. "Everything is recognizably street, nothing is posed, of course."

    Don't make this statement if you review a Steve McCurry publication.

    1. Well, I am assuming of course that Andy is not a disingenuous putz, and that the pictures are much as they appear. I also assume that they're not generated by AI, or 3D renders.

      But actually, now that I think of it, there are a few pictures that do appear posed to a degree, a little bit of "hello man with the camera, let me smile" and I think even one of "children, huddle up so the man with the camera can photograph us!"

      So, as a blanket statement I think I was slightly off the mark. But the general flavor is nonetheless "life as it is lived.'

  7. I grilled Andy for a couple hours about how he shot the images in the book. Andy is not the kind of person who is comfortable arranging strangers. When I've watched him work in the street in Austin he never arranged people. He might be the anti-McCurry....