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How photographer Reuben Wu captures sublime landscapes of the American West

How photographer Reuben Wu captures sublime landscapes of the American West

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The first time Reuben Wu saw the warm sandstone hues and vast open skies of the American West, he was watching the landscapes pass before him from the window of a tour bus.

The British visual artist, now based in Chicago, has become known for his sublime images of distant landscapes using drone lighting, enhancing craggy peaks with halos or writing glyphs in the sky like signals from a supernatural entity. But for a long time, art was just a hobby project as he focused on a musical career as one of four members of synth-pop band Ladytron.

“(Photography) started out as an all-consuming hobby,” he explained in a phone interview. But when Ladytron went on hiatus in 2011 after five studio albums (they released a sixth self-titled album in 2019 and the seventh, “Time’s Arrow,” this month), he started a new career from scratch. “While the others did their own solo projects, making their own music and releasing their own albums, this was my solo project.”

Wu’s imagery takes a classic photographer’s combination – light and landscape – and marries the two in a transformative way. He often starts with the dark light of evening or the inky black shadows of night, then strategically illuminates parts of the scene with custom-built consumer drones. In one image, a luminous horizontal line hovers above a glacier in the Peruvian Andes, revealing the sheen of ice against a dark sky. In a different motion piece, Wu simulated an electrical storm in Goblin Valley, Utah, but with perfectly straight flashes of light rather than jagged lightning.

The artist’s 2018 photobook “Lux Noctis” is in the collections of the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and he has done commercial work for Apple, Audi and Google as well as the DJ and producer of Zedd music. Last summer, Wu revealed a colossal project for National Geographic: a cover story and accelerated multimedia piece about Stonehenge, which featured the enigmatic monument illuminated by his custom drones. In November, one of his NFTs, a 4K video loop titled “An Irresistible Force”, exceeded its high estimate by more than 25% at an auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, selling for HKD 441,000 ( approximately $56,500).

“I couldn’t have dreamed where I am now,” Wu said. “I just wanted to be able to make a living doing art and doing photography.”

Alien inspired

Wu was always drawn to wild and remote places where he could find solitude. His parents immigrated to the UK from Hong Kong before he was born, and he grew up an introverted kid in Liverpool, he said, who didn’t quite click with school. He was fascinated by sci-fi movies that blend the extraterrestrial with the everyday, like Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which featured Wyoming’s Devils Tower as a site of extraterrestrial contact. (Unfamiliar with American topography, he initially thought the butte, a national monument, was a fictional geological feature, he explained with a laugh).

The film’s visuals of remote desert scenes mixed with eerie lights served as a formative inspiration in his own work. “(It’s) cemented in my brain, the idea of ​​these seemingly impossible lights moving across the sky, kind of like spotlights on very ordinary (American) landscapes,” he said.

Reuben Wu has traveled extensively to remote places in the United States and beyond for his work. Here he traveled the salt plains of Bolivia, using the vast empty land as his backdrop. Credit: Ruben Wu

He embarked on his first photographic journey across the United States in 2013, about a decade after getting a taste of the road with Ladytron. The resulting series featured vivid depictions of the Grand Canyon and South Dakota’s badlands, as well as a time-lapse image of Devils Tower at night among star trails.

Two years later, Wu discovered the effect drone lighting could have on the natural world while working on an outdoor automotive shoot.

“I flew the drone over cliffs and was absolutely mesmerized by the effect it had on the actual landscape,” he explained. It made the cliffs glow, reaching areas otherwise impossible to light artificially.

Wu's first inspiration came from "Encounters of the third kind," inspiring his interest in the American West.

Wu’s first inspiration came from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, inspiring his interest in the American West. Credit: Ruben Wu

Wu installs lights on drones to suit his needs on a given shoot or project. The first iteration, he said, that he used when the technology was still nascent, was a “massive” eight-rotor drone fitted with homemade lights that only had about eight minutes of flight time. The next one used a 3D printed stand with a warm LED light, but still only gave it an extra two minutes in the air. The technology he uses now gives him a bit more leeway, with half an hour to fly off, capture images, and come back to him, but he’s had to learn to work within the limitations of each configuration.

“I’m a lot less anxious now because I’ve crashed a number of drones,” he said. “And in the end, they are just tools.”

Experimental series

After developing series of still images such as “Lux Noctis” and “Aeroglyphs”, which experiment with ghostly lighting and geometric shapes in the sky, Wu found himself wanting to incorporate movement and sound into his work by because of his own training in music. He began creating 15-second video loops from his footage, showing light beams forming patterns or the moon crossing the sky, to the beat of atmospheric electronic music he produced.

“These (works) were very experimental and had no end goal – they were just things I did for love for love,” he said. “I couldn’t fire them, I couldn’t print them…and so they were just there, piling likes on my Instagram.”

Wu was assigned to shoot in various locations, including the New Mexico badlands.  This image comes from a 20 hour shoot.

Wu was assigned to shoot in various locations, including the New Mexico badlands. This image comes from a 20 hour shoot. Credit: Ruben Wu

But in January 2021, Wu found a way to make it a more substantial part of his career when he was introduced to NFT art. It minted its first “non-fungible token” on the Market Foundation two months later – an “aeroglyph” of glowing lines forming a rectangle above a beachside cliff. It sold for 30 ETH ($45,000), part of which was donated to the National Parks Conservation Association and the AAPI Community Fund. Later that year, the arts organization Web3 Obscura asked him to produce a new series of images called “Aeroglyph Variations”, which took him to the badlands of New Mexico for a 20-hour shoot that resulted in 55 images of the same setting, each with different lighting conditions and patterns. Wu has also experimented with presenting work in a variety of ways, from animations to AR experiences to projecting moving images onto physical prints.

“It’s really a hybrid medium, and so I’d like to broaden that horizon even further and think about the end goal of my work,” he said. “Am I creating a beautiful work of art that people can look at and enjoy, or am I creating an experience to share?”

Wu leans towards the latter as he continues to experiment with the form his work takes, but regardless of the medium, his vision and approach to the natural world remains consistent.

“A lot of people always say my work is otherworldly – that’s the first word people think of when they think of my work,” he said. “But I’m not trying to create an extraterrestrial image; I’m trying to show that it’s our planet. And there are so many new ways to see it that can renew your perspective.”

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