Than nothing, than flowers (English)

This post is about the production and publication of my photobook which you can buy here (although calling it artist book would be more appropriate). I think this is the fastest project I have ever done, but this doesn’t mean it has lost any quality, since the process has been very fluid from the beginning; and that is where I will start.


Underneath the trees
soups and salads are buried
in cherry blossoms

During April 2017 I travelled to Japan. It was conceived as a vacation trip to enjoy the place, see monuments, eat (EAT) and take some pictures for the family album. The problem was that I like photography quite a lot (maybe too much), and researching places to go to, I started looking for photobook shops, photography stores, second hand camera shops and galleries and museums related to photography. Since I wanted to have enough information about it, in an attempt of bravery and wit I sent a message to Gabriela Cendoya, of whom I knew very little at the moment, apart from her being an avid photobook collector which meant she would know something on the matter. After telling her all I had planned (just for Tokyo) she told me that it was probable I had more information about japanese libraries than her, and that photobooks, as everything else in life, depend on the taste, that I should look and take whatever I was interested in. It seems I am getting away from my thesis, but it is all related. Gabriela put me in contact with Ricardo Garrido, who lives in Tokyo, to get more information about interesting photography-related places and he talked to me about TOP Museum and told me there was a place called Reminders Photography Stronghold, managed by Yumi Goto, that was very interesting. I didn’t give too much importance to that information. I looked the places up and put them in the map we had created for the trip. Once in Tokyo, for some reason or another, we ended up not visiting Yumi’s place.

In the first days of the trip, in Kyoto, I bought an excelent analog camera (nicknamed by Adela as C3PO). With it and another compact digital camera we took all of the photos during the journey. Buying the camera and taking loads of pictures with it (13 rolls or about 450 shots) was not fruit of casuality. I had planned on buying a camera and taking pictures with the intention of doing something, a project, a series, a thing, about Japan. Throughout the journey, the idea of what to photograph began taking a clearer shape, as I looked for cherry blossoms, people in the subway and more or less a link between the two things.

We also stored brochures, papers, cards and small magazines with the intention of scanning them too. With the developed photographs and a slight idea of what I wanted to talk about (which was the hanami, or cherry blossom celebration), I started editing the images, with more or less luck and cohesion. I also began investigating about the hanami celebration and the meaning it had in Japan, and what I saw in the images I had taken. The first selection and sequence had to do with the passing of time, with fugacity and «mono no aware» (this concept is very important). A bit by instinct I began trying different things with the pictures, like painting over them with watercolor, making origami flowers and looking for ways to transfer that sensation to the photos (or looking for it in the images).

The first version of the project was sent to a PDF contest in Arles, France. We had planned on going to the Opening week before traveling to Japan and, even though I didn’t have time to take the pictures to any portfolio review, there I went to see what had been done and what would come in photography this year. The festival’s opening week, by the way, was on the first days of july. Before that I had seen that in Getxophoto, another festival organised in Bilbao, they were offering a photobook making workshop with Yumi Goto and Juanan Requena.  In order to be selected for the workshop you had to send a project to work with during the classes, so I sent a little selection of the japanese photos (the second or third selection) and a brief description of what I wanted to say with the pictures.

Back to Arles, July 2017. In the beginning I was planning on leaving Murcia tuesday morning and arriving in the afternoon, but I saw in the programming that there was a photobook talk by Yumi and some other people that day. So at 3 in the monday afternoon I left Murcia and 11 hours and a lot of tolls later, I arrived at Arles. I didn’t know them at the time, but during the talk I was seating behind Yoshiko Mogi, Miki Hasegawa, Miyuki Okuyama, Mayumi Suzuki and Kenji Chiga, who had participated in other workshops with Yumi and all of them had their dummy coming along.

After the talk I approached Yumi and introduced myself, told her that I was working on a project about Hanami and Japan, she looked at me with a funny face, like saying «you don’t know the trouble you are in». We spoke for a while as I explained her what I wanted to do and what I knew about the celebration. She told me hanami was something much deeper than just a spring celebration in which japanese people go to the parks to eat and drink, that, to say it bluntly, I was stepping in muddy waters, but she would like to know more and see where I went with the project. We met again a couple of times during the festival and I had the luck to see some of the books and dummies she had brought. The production level in all of them was astounding, and then end there I decided to get the most out of the Getxo workshop if I was selected (the selection timeframe ended after the Arles opening week). Yumi said not to worry about that, and introduced me to Arimasa, who was also planning on attending the workshop and was working on a project about his relationship with his girlfriend, who passed away due to cancer some time ago. I also met Juanan Requena there, since the last day of my stay he came to have dinner with us, and I told him I was going to the workshop. Back in Murcia I saw I had been selected, so I prepared everything they had asked us to do before going and looking for a place to stay in Bilbao.

During the summer vacation I used the extra time of a trip to visit the family to take pictures of the cherry trees moving in the wind, without flowers. In Murcia I made different tests with cherries, putting them on glass containers, seeing how they decomposed, and reading the Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shibiku, from where I took some of the texts included in the final book. The other text I found looking for haikus about hanami and cherry trees, and I found other texts in the novel that didn’t make it into the book, but versed about the same concept of time passing, youth leaving and cherry trees. Another test I did was placing the origami flowers in the shape of the japanese map, and making pink paper petals, like those of the cherry flowers, to make another map and blow the petals away during a series of images. I had also found some woodblock print images in the Library of Congress about Hanami and cherry blossoms, free for use and publication. So, at the end of August I went to Bilbao with a suitcase filled with the photographs and materials I had prepared for the first session, and a hard drive full of photos and images for the project.

At that moment I had two more or less defined lines in the pictures. One line consisting of cherry trees, petals and people celebrating hanami, and another line of people in the subway and trains in which the pale pink color of cherry flowers was present or photos where flower motifs and flower-like clothing was used as a trigger for taking the picture; and apart from that I had all the scanned materials and found images. During the first session we laid out the first selection of images on the wall (a bit ample selection in my case, since the exact final concept was a bit diffuse).

After setting this up and explaining the images and what we wanted to say with them, we went on with commenting each other’s projects, and thanks to them I found out that there was a great dispersion in the selection, that there were images too explicit to be inside the «mono no aware» concept, which was the main line I hade decided (and the thing that appeared most in the project). There were also images in the hard drive from the compact digital camera (which at first I considered as being inferior to the analogs). With the hepl of Yumi and Arimasa I was able to put away the pictures that were farther from the concept from a japanese audience point of view, which was something I wanted to have in mind so that the work was not disrespectful or vulgar; from my point of view (and confirmed by Yumi) it had to be subtle but clear. For clarity, Juanan’s advice was key, since he helped me on how to see photographs that were full of different information, or in which there were noisy elements that separated them from the subtlety and clarity I needed.

I now had a much smaller selection than at the beginning, the wall almost empty, and then I started a new search in the hard drive, looking for images closer to the concept and the selected pictures. The quality and where they came from was irrelevant at that moment, they would serve as  stand-ins for the first paper dummy to design the narrative of the book. With the hard drive selection done, Yumi went through all of our computers, helping and refining our selections from a different point of view, always respecting the concept we had chosen. I was a bit afraid of the selection we had made in the hard drive, since many of the images were very similar, but Yumi insisted and told me not to worry, to start working on the paper dummy with that selection and then start polishing in Indesign.

Selection for the first paper dummy

During the weekend we worked on the paper dummy, pasting and sequencing the images we had on very basic paper signatures. This helped us see the flow between one picture and the next, and get an idea of the size, the contrast from one photo to another, as well as finding out where there was something missing and where we had to take images out. With the photos from the wall as the image shows I found out that there were certain similarities between the woodblock prints and some of the hanami celebration photos, and that was something I had to explore in the book.

After doing the paper dummy we had another group session to put in common the works. The first dummy had some hard contrasts and harsh cuts in the sequence that changed the register of the story I was trying to tell. Yumi told me that I had to take advantage of the picture repetition, using the little changes in the images to speak about the impermanence and the transient state of things. Giancarlo Shibayama, who was there as Yumi’s assistant, explained to me that in the book he was working on, the images were folded in the japanese traditional binding style, with the center of the image on the outer border of the page, and that each photograph was in contact with the one before and the one after, something I hadn’t thought about until then, but really helped on the flow of my project’s narration. Step by step, the picture sequence was starting to get clearer and I went on with designing the dummy on indesign. The final format couldn’t be very big, or I would lose the view of a somewhat little idea. I thought that something I could print in A4 size would be big enough for the concept, and I started thinking about the paper I would use for printing.

On one of the sessions we went to the Goya shop in Bilbao, in order to see the papers and materials for the final dummies. I asked there if they had 50 or 60 gram paper, so that when folded it wouldn’t be very thick and also for it to have some transparency. I also looked for japanese papers for another idea I had, to give another layer that meant the fragility and fugacity of life. The intention was to cover some images of the book so that they had a layer over them, like a flower petal that doesn’t allow for us to see the whole picture. On other pictures I used transparency to make them fade out. I did a dummy in normal paper, still without a final title, to see the sequence and the effect of the japanese paper and binding.

After the second dummy came the hardest thing, coming up with the title (some in English, some in Spanish). Accross the trees (gracias Juanan), volver del viento, volver, terminar, viaje, viento, final tránsito, cambios, pétalos, rosa, nothing you can see, nothing in the trees, la velocidad del viento, nothing in the wind, pétalos madera hojas, pétalos hojas madera, spring again, spring morning sun, than the stars, than the flowers, Than nothing, than the flowers. Between the first and last title ideas there was a long span of time (at least that seemed to me), thinking about everything I wanted to tell but not explain with text inside the book. The final title is a play on words with a japanese phrase «than the stars, than the flowers (星よりも、花よりも Hoshi Yori mo, Hana Yori mo, suggested by Yumi) which refers to something more beautiful than the stars and the flowers, and in the book, «than nothing» is about the cherry tree’s state when it has no leaves or flowers, just the wood, a future state, a potential in which every other life state is latent.

The book starts with the cherry blossoms and finishes with a plum branch without flowers or leaves. I had thought of changing the final pictures for those of a cherry tree in the beginning, but as I was investigating the hanami celebration I found out that it was originally celebrated in february during the plum blossoming, but due to the better climate during the cherry blossoming and the fact that flowers fell completely from the tree, the latter was popularized among the masses. The plum flower stayed on the tree and didn’t have the same implications about transience and impermanence. With the idea of uniting the past and present, as I had done with the woodblock prints, I decided to leave the plum branch as a colophon for the book. On the last day of the workshop I made two final dummies (with a little difference between them), so that Yumi could take one for her library in Tokyo, which I numbered as 0 of 85.

Genji Monogatari:

宮人に行きて語らむ山桜 風よりさきに来ても見るべく」
“Hurry up if you want to see the blooming cherry trees in the mountains, for the winds may visit them before you”

嵐吹く尾の上の桜散らぬ間を 心とめけるほどのはかなさ
Little time separates the cherry blossoms from the fall storms that destroy their flowers… That is the time you will think of me!

Why will I make 85 copies? Looking for a significant number for me or the project, given that I was talking about life, cycles, the time that will never come back, I decided to use the year of my birth to mark the number of books I would make, marking a time that will never come back. I have started production at home, and had to make some adjustments to the final book ,which in the dummy were a bit confusing, but that I have compensated with other things.

I think thtat with this and the technical data it is all quite clear.

Technical data:

«Than nothing, than flowers»
110 pages
Handbound japanese binding
September 2017,
Editions: 85
Size: 195mm x 148mm x 15mm
Price: 65€ plus shipping
Photos/binding/translation: Isaac Rupérez Cano
Texts: Basho and Murasaki Shibiku
Woodblock prints from the pre-1915 fine prints collection found in
Language: English and Japanese
Made in the context of Photobook as an Object workshop with Yumi Goto and Juanan Requena in Bilbao, August 2017

The Photobook as an Object workshop Bilbao participants:

Pablo, Juanan, Tere, Yo, Arimasa, Amaia, Diego, Yumi, Marco y Giancarlo (Sonia had to leave early)

Pablo’s «book» dummy

A japanese system to order the speaking turns

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