Roberto Fernández Ibáñez: Renaissance Man

© Roberto Fernández Ibáñez ‘Icarus’ [detail] from the series ‘Zeitgeist’. “Today’s Icarus flies with ‘other kinds of wings’…”

Metaphor is the key to imagination.


We live in a world of specialists and celebrities; of instant communication and quick fixes. It is an age of speed and change. We must rush to keep up. But when do we take time to stop and think; to reflect upon the deeper meaning of life and the conundrum of our very existence?

In such a torrent of superficial stimulation Roberto Fernández Ibáñez stands against the flow. He is a man of many interests and skills, exploring the world through deep thought and subtle imagination. Where others specialise, he embraces many disciplines. When others rush, he determines to remain slow. While others seek fame before the many, he looks to the quality of human connection. In the Age of the Digital, he innovates through the craft of the analogue.

Born in the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo, Roberto Fernández Ibáñez studied chemistry as a young man. It was only later, when he was in his thirties, that he first taught himself the skills of photography and began to understand it as a Fine Art. Today he pursues a practice that experiments with processes long since abandoned by most photographers. He is artist and artisan, exploring ideas with his eyes and with his hands; with his mind and with his heart. He respects the materials and the analogue processes, but he is not in their thrall. He frees the image from the featureless surface of the paper to bring texture and relief to the print, turning it from a flat document (often likened to a window or a mirror) into an object, where touch and perhaps smell augment the experience of the eye and thread new emotions into the tapestry of perception.

In fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe during a period known as the Renaissance (literally ‘rebirth’) there was an avid exploration of a broad spectrum of ideas within a humanist arc. The great thinkers of the time sought to develop their abilities in many areas of knowledge across art, science, philosophy and social intercourse. They were polymaths and, today, we remember them and celebrate them when we speak of such widely engaged people as ‘renaissance’ men and women.

An artist, chemist, craftsman, essayist, philosopher, poet, teacher… and photographer, Roberto Fernández Ibáñez is truly a renaissance man.

Alasdair Foster

© Roberto Fernández Ibáñez ‘The Three Keys’ from the series ‘Other Alchemy’


Alasdair: Your approach to photography is highly innovative, yet you work with very traditional analogue materials. Why do you choose to work this way?

Roberto: I like to work with my hands as well as with my imagination. While working in my darkroom, I feel that there is a kind of ‘intelligence’ in the hands. Dodging, burning, manipulating emulsions… carrying the paper from tray to tray. Washing paper is a meditative process… just me and the sound of water. When I say ‘intelligence’ I’m not talking about being ‘clever’. Evolution doesn’t mean that we have to abandon manual work. On the contrary, we should use our abilities to the full: the mental and the physical; body and mind working together as a whole. I still have a lot to say working with these ‘old-style’ materials and devising new alternative processes. There is beauty and nobility in gelatin-silver film and prints that is special. They are sumptuous and humble at the same time.

So, the darkroom is an important place for you?

I experience photography as a two-stage process: the taking of the image and the personal creative expression interpreting the negative, giving birth to a tangible object – the print. The darkroom gives me the opportunity for a second insight into the image. Here, I become an artisan.

Traditional photographic processes allow for serendipitous error. The process of experimentation is one of the most precious tools for an artist.  I have learned a lot from my ‘mistakes’: they are ‘hidden doors’ that open onto the unexpected and the unpredictable. By carefully recording what happens I can develop new techniques or formulas, which, in time, I learn to control.

Your subject matter is also very inventive, mixing craft techniques and metaphorical iconography. What do you want to achieve in your images?

Metaphor is the key to imagination. It works by associating two or more apparently unrelated ideas to create a new meaning. I can show a tree, or a beam of light, or a figure, or a building… but what else are they? What is the intention; the meaning? I want people to look a little deeper than simply seeing the surface. I want them to project their inner experience and beliefs into the image. Some iconography is universally understood, but some operates in a more indirect way. Perhaps the most challenging task for an artist is to create a new iconography, a new mythology, a new meaning for the times yet to come.

From where does your inspiration come?

It may come from a single word… or a sound… or from silence. It is essential to remain alert. I don’t carry my cameras with me all the time, but I do carry my notebook and pencil wherever I go. I write prose, poetry, haiku, short stories, essays… The relationship between what I see and my musings is symbiotic. I don’t find my inspiration in the work of other photographers. In fact, I don’t go searching for inspiration. I simply stay ‘in tune’ with whatever comes into my mind.

Tell me about the making of the ‘Rara Avis’ series.

The Latin expression ‘Rara Avis’ refers to strange birds, but it can also be applied to rare or bizarre people or things. The work began when I was walking to the beach along a narrow road and the wind blew two pieces of wood together. Though I had never paid attention to them on previous walks, that gust of wind ‘arranged’ these scraps of wood in a form that, to me, looked like a weird sort of bird. I took the wood home and photographed the first ‘rara avis’. After that, I went out intentionally looking for new fragments for my collection of freak, primitive, impossible birds.

You make artist’s books.

These are my favourite projects. Each book is a complete body of work involving photography, drawing, writing, design and handicraft, which come together as a visual and tactile experience.

© Roberto Fernández Ibáñez ‘Other Alchemy’ artist’s book

When did you begin?

My first artist’s book was called ‘On Wind and Cloud’ [2001]. One day, I found myself writing a haiku at the same moment as I took a photograph. I decided not to separate word from image and, even more, I was prompted to write as poetically as I could about the immediate experiences of those magical moments. Since then I’ve made more than twenty books.

How do you exhibit them?

I present them at the lectures and talks I give in various countries, showing them alongside the original photographs. I very much like this direct interaction with people, so that I can communicate what lies at the core of my work in a way that the books alone cannot fully convey.

The ‘Zeitgeist’ series is very distinctive. First, what does ‘zeitgeist’ mean?

The approximate translation of the German expression ‘zeitgeist’ could be ‘the spirit of the times’. There are trends, currents of thought, behaviours, beliefs, philosophical approaches, scientific discoveries and so on that can impact upon and come to define our social and individual lives. In some cases we see these effects right away, but for others ‘only time will tell’. Then, at some point in the future, we might look back and say: that was the zeitgeist! I was there, but I couldn’t see it!

What are you exploring in this series?

I’m trying to visualise our contemporary myths and archetypes. Every culture has its own mythological subtext to life, searching for and interpreting the meaning of existence. It has nothing to do with religion; gods and devils are simply metaphorical entities invented to explain the world we live in. The zeitgeist can be discovered through careful observation; tearing away the ‘veils’ that impede our vision.

How do you achieve that beautiful effect like crumpled silk?

It is a personal variation of a process called ‘bleach and etch’ that dates back to 1897. Initially it was used on glass negatives, and later it was done on paper when it was called ‘mordançage’. I modified those formulas, so that the process now has just two steps and offers greater control in the manipulation of the delicate emulsion. I am currently working on a further refinement to this process and hope to see the results next year.

You subtitle the series ‘Visions of a Contemporary Mythology’. What mythology you are envisioning?

So far I have made six works in this series: five based on Greek mythology and one concerning the human impulse to destruction. I think that this impulse to destruction is peculiar to our current era. In antique myths and legends destructive entities emerge as vengeful behaviours, the madness of deities, or an incarnation of Natural forces; negative or beyond human control. Today, destruction is done ‘in the name of’ knowledge, enjoyment, self-confidence… This seems to ‘justify’ any bad action; you just act instinctively. Isn’t that a retrograde step? It is like saying “the world is just a thing to be dominated. I am not part of it”. We no longer respect Life, even our own. Perhaps this kind of destructive and careless behaviour is just boredom: a consequence of a life that is empty because we cannot find our true place in this world.

© Roberto Fernández Ibáñez ‘Coming Back to Ithaca’ from the series ‘Zeitgeist’

So, your perspective is quite pessimistic?

Well, the zeitgeist can change, and for the good too. Other archetypes and prototypes come to mind, which are also part of our contemporary context: the idea of a living Mother Earth (called Gaia, in some cultures), the ‘anonymous hero’, the wise old person. They will all be included in this project. And, as it develops, the series will not be limited to Western mythology. I am exploring myths and legends of ancient cultures from all continents. It is a journey of discovery. I am still partially blind. I have yet to tear away many veils…

What are you working on now?

I am working on four new projects. One is about Chinese classic poetry, which has a particular focus on the work of Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Shi and Wang Wei. A second deals with Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ [an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in the early 14th Century, describing an allegorical vision of the afterlife and widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature]. The third is a multi-disciplinary project about the legendary library of Alexandria [one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient Western world, which was eventually destroyed by a series of fires]. And the fourth, called ‘Ex Libris’, is a collection of photographs, drawings and stories I have written. Each series employs different techniques and some will result in one or more artist’s books.

What is the strangest response you have had to your work?

One strange response (at least for me) is to ask why I put so much effort into making each print. These days, people think always of shortcuts. Patience and enjoying a time-consuming labour seem to be forgotten customs. I think we are still haunted by the ghost of Kodak’s slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” [used in the late 19th Century to advertise the first mass-market cameras]. Years ago I wrote a poem (entitled ‘Kodak’) about that way of doing and being. This idea of “we do the rest” sounds like “let us think for you”, and that can be dangerous. Important things such as making art should be conceived, executed and followed through from the beginning to the end of the work.

Another strange reaction I get is: “I thought you were a photographer… are you also a writer? A painter?… A lecturer?… A reader?… A researcher?… A chemist?… What are you?!” It worries me how strongly we focus on specialisation in a single field. It influences our schools and our employment; our concepts of pleasure and work have been contaminated with the expectation of narrowness and minimal effort.

What is the most important thing you have learned about working with photography?

Photography is working with me, on me, through me. In every sincere artist, art expresses itself through them. For me, photography is a Way… Sometimes I have moments of what I call ‘certainty’. I can say no more.

Roberto Fernández Ibáñez in his darkroom [© Roberto Fernández Ibáñez]

Biographical Notes

Roberto Fernández Ibáñez was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1955. At university he studied chemistry, working as an industrial chemist for many years. He began to teach himself photography at 28 years of age, when his wife gave him an issue of Popular Photography magazine. In 1985 he built his first darkroom, presenting his first solo exhibition in 1987. In 1992, his work was select by Wendy Watriss for showing at Houston FotoFest, Texas, and since then he has been exhibiting worldwide. His work is included in private and public collections in many countries and has garnered several awards.

In 2006, he decided to dedicate himself full-time to fine art photography, and moved from Montevideo to Solymar, a seaside suburb in the Ciudad de la Costa. Slowly their new home evolved into an open-house gallery where he exhibits his early photographs alongside his most recent work.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.