Fede Ruiz Santesteban: The Gifts of the Garden

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban – photographic development in a ceibo leaf [Erythrina crista-galli] from the series ‘The Strange Case of the Gardener’ 2014 [processed without added ink or chemicals]

It was the consequence of a limitation…

My emphasis was on low cost and sustainability.


The Nineteenth Century was a time of lively experimentation in the art and science of ‘drawing with light’. Many innovative ways of capturing an image formed by light were invented before silver-gelatin and colour printing became standardised in the twentieth century. Today, those early processes are enjoying a revival in the field of photo-based art. Bored by the easy ultra-perfect surface generated by digital printing, some practitioners have returned to explore the medium’s craft origins as a way to connect the photographic object to the hand of the maker.

The Uruguayan artist Fede Ruiz Santesteban has been rediscovering and reinventing one of the most unusual and most delicately poetic of these old craft forms: the Anthotype. His images are made using the naturally occurring properties of plants in his garden. There are none of the chemicals or inks commonly associated with photography. His methods simply harness the way certain leaves and flower petals react in sunlight. While he began with a process invented in the early 1840s, he has since undertaken extensive experimentation, developing new ways in which plants may be used to create images in an ecologically sustainable way.

Alasdair Foster

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban – photographic development in a hibiscus leaf [Hibiscus Syriacus] from the series ‘The Strange Case of the Gardener’ 2011 [processed without added ink or chemicals]


Alasdair: Why and how did you begin making photographic images using the properties of plants rather than traditional analogue or contemporary digital methods?

Fede: It was the consequence of a limitation. I began working in photography at the end of the Nineties but, some years later, I abandoned traditional analogue processes due to the high costs involved. Uruguay was in the grip of an economic crisis at the time. While digital photography was more accessible, I wanted to recapture the magic that resides in the processes of developing an image. So, I began experimenting with alternative processes. My emphasis was on low cost and sustainability; my materials came from the local environment.

What is the story behind ‘El Extraño Caso del Jardinero’ (the strange case of the gardener)?

This was my first project exploring these new approaches to image-making. It began to take shape in 2011, when I had just become a father for the first time. Almost without me thinking about it, my first prints were of my new son, Valentín. He took his first steps in the garden and showed great affection for the world of plants. When he was two years old, he asked me about the leaves that bore an image of his face. Lightheartedly, I said: “it is the garden thanking you for looking after it”. For Valentín, who found the whole world amazing, this seemed quite natural. In this way, the project became a story celebrating the magical sensibility that inhabits childhood. For us adults, it is an invitation to play, to believe for a moment that there is a miraculous garden that says ‘thank you’ to its little gardener by portraying him.

This it is the same garden in which I was raised – it is a part of my life. Many of the plants whose leaves today portray my son were part of my own childhood.

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban – photographic development in a leaf, from the series ‘The Strange Case of the Gardener’ 2013 [processed without added ink or chemicals]

How are these works made?

The images develop as a result of the photosensitive reaction of chlorophyll and other plant pigments in leaves and petals. I do not use any additional inks or chemicals. They derive from the Anthotype process, but I have since evolved my own techniques. [Invented in the early 1840s by Mary Somerville (1780–1872), an Anthotype is an image created using the photosensitive qualities of the leaves and petals of certain plants which, when exposed to sunlight through a contact negative, become bleached out in areas open to the sun.]

Looking at these works in the way they are presented in exhibitions, one thing that strikes me is their sheer physicality. These leaves, each with its photographic image, are held in the hand, heaped in piles or displayed using light boxes and glass cabinets.

In 2013, I began using social-media networks to exhibit my work. Here, I began to build the fantastical story of a magical garden where the plants sprout leaves that bear the image of its little gardener. I made a series of digital images in which each image-bearing leaf is held in the hand, emphasising that these are physical, tactile objects.

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban – photographic development in arugula [rocket] leaves, from the series ‘The Strange Case of the Gardener’ 2014 [processed without added ink or chemicals]

Then, in 2016, this work was selected for exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Uruguay. I worked with the curator and director of the museum, Fernando Sicco, to conceive an apparently ‘scientific’ exhibition. The installation consisted of display tables and cabinets similar to those in a natural history museum. There was also a mountain of dry leaves in which there were more than five hundred prints. The public were encouraged to handle these strange phenomena: to put reason aside for a while and share in this father-and-son game of playful imagining.

Your images are very popular with audiences. Why do you think this is?

Photographic development is magical, and the use of plant materials has its own peculiar poetry. But technique should not be an end in itself. I hope that these organic processes are a bridge that connects my making and the public psyche. A work of art is unfinished until it enters the imagination of the viewer.

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban ‘Broom Prunings’ from the series ‘Prunings’ 2018

Your second project was ‘Podas’ (prunings). What ideas are you exploring in these images?

The project began at a pivotal moment in my personal life when I began to create a new garden. For me, this was a therapeutic and philosophical undertaking. Many plants required pruning if they were to flourish with new growth. The process became an unexpected metaphor: as I worked on the garden, I also felt pruned, rejuvenated.

How were these images made?

Again, I was searching for sustainable and low-cost processes free of the bichromates, cyanides and silver nitrate commonly associated with photographic development. After many years of trial and error, I have come up with my own light-sensitive emulsion made from various local materials mixed with rainwater. The images are created through multiple exposures by direct contact in sunlight. By its nature, each work is unique. Each new step is a pact with serendipity: time and space; plan and accident. The colour palettes arise by chance, and I am always the first to be amazed by the results. It is a process that celebrates uncertainty!

How did you discover this way of making images?

It took many years of experimentation to find plant leaves with the necessary light-sensitive properties. It takes several days or even weeks to create an image, depending on the type of plant. Leaves are only suitable for harvesting at certain times of year, and this varies from one species to another. Other variables I must consider include temperature, humidity, and the wavelengths of light to which the sheets are exposed during the process.

How are they ‘fixed’ to make them stable?

There is no special stabilisation process. I have been building an empirical catalogue of species, recording their various reactions to light and their durability over time. Some of these images are now over ten years old. But with other plants, I am happy to allow the images to gradually disappear – a poetic celebration of the ephemeral.

I imagine this cataloguing process is a very big task.

In 2006, I established a cultural centre called Espacio Hiedra [literally: Ivy Space] in Montevideo where I run workshops exploring the expressive potential of sustainable alterative photographic processes. The emphasis is on experimentation and the participation of students taking these courses has been very important. Together, we conduct many collaborative experiments, adding the results to the continually expanding catalogue.

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban ‘Flower images developed in Arum-lily leaves’ from the series ‘Herbarium’ 2020 [process without added ink or chemicals]

The next series is ‘Herbario’ (herbarium). Here you use plant materials, mostly leaves, as the substrate on which the images are formed. How did this begin?

Herbarium is an ‘Ode to Weeds’. It celebrates the rebellious nature of those plants considered to be invasive and unwanted. I live in a former seaside resort on the outskirts of Montevideo which, since I was a child, has transformed into a city as the population expanded rapidly in the 1990s. Behind each urban expansion is a counter desire to fight for the preservation of the environment and to disrupt the anthropocentric conception by which we classify some plant species as ‘invasive weeds’. Who is invading who? These plants were here first. I believe that, in each of these tenacious species, we witness the subtle beauty and the heroic power of little plants breaking concrete to flourish and coexist.

This is a project in which I harness my conceptual skills both as a photographer and as an architect and urban planner. Each of these weeds is a poetic metaphor that seeks to reflect on the consequences of a relentless urban growth that does not respect the pre-existing traits of its historical environment.

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban from the series ‘Herbarium’ 2020 [process without added ink or chemicals]
[Left] ‘Roman Chamomile developed in a substrate of Nasturtium leaves’; [Right] ‘Dandelion developed in a substrate of Ivy leaves’

Tell me about your work as an architect.

I trained as an architect and as a photographer simultaneously. As time went by, I came to understand that these were two paths that met to become one. I think that in architecture school I learned a lot about creating photographs, and photography made me a better architect. The conceptual themes are also intertwined. I have developed a system of ‘Perfectible Homes’ focused on low cost, sustainability, and materials found easily in the local environment. The objective is to find solutions to the high costs of housing in Uruguay. Perfectible Homes provides a progressive self-construction system that requires no previous building experience. The house is designed to evolve with additional rooms and levels added later as the needs and resources of the owners change. The goal is to develop a sustainable home that is thermally efficient, self-generates its energy, and recycles the waste it produces. I am honoured to be able to say that this system has been used by teachers and students at the University of Labor of Uruguay (UTU) to build houses in the interior regions of our country.

In making your images of and with plants, what have you learned about yourself that you did not previously understand?

I have come to recognise myself in time and space. This work has helped me realise that I was born and raised in a family that has a special bond with plants; a legacy that has passed down from generation to generation. Our story begins with my immigrant great-grandparents whose garden in Uruguay was filled with plants that reminded them of their European origins. Every day, I build a garden that provides me with photographic materials and creative inspiration. A garden that is my laboratory and also my biography.

© Fede Ruiz Santesteban – Part of an exhibition of works from the series ‘Herbarium’ Museo Zorrilla, Montevideo 2020

Biographical Notes

Fede Ruiz Santesteban was born in Ciudad de la Costa, Uruguay, in 1980. He studied photography with Sandro Pereyra and architecture at the Universidad de la Republica, Montevideo. He was co-director of the Gato Peludo cultural centre (2012–2019) and currently directs and teaches at the Espacio Hiedra. He has exhibited extensively in Uruguay including the Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo, Montevideo (2016), the Centro de Fotografía de Montevideo (2019) and at the Museo Zorrilla, Montevideo (2020). His projects ‘The Strange Case of the Gardener’ and ‘Herbarium’ were designated of cultural interest by the Uruguayan Ministry of Education and Culture. Internationally, his work has been shown in Angola, Argentina, Austria, Cuba, Peru, Portugal, and the USA.

He has received a number of accolades including those from the Costa Awards (2007); the Heritage Photographic Contest (2006); the Festival de la Luz, Argentina (2017 and 2018); the Uruguayan Photography Awards (2018 and 2019); and the Latin American Photography AI-AP Awards. In 2018, his work was presented at the Cannes Creativity Festival. Fede Ruiz Santesteban lives and works in Ciudad de la Costa.

Photo: © Virginia Mórtola

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the June 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.