How photographer Reuben Wu makes sublime landscapes of the American West

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The to start with time Reuben Wu noticed the warm sandstone hues and wide, open skies of the American West, he was observing the landscapes pass him by from the window of a tour bus.

The British visible artist, now dependent in Chicago, has grow to be regarded for his elegant imagery of distant landscapes working with drone lighting, improving craggy peaks with halos, or composing glyphs in the sky like alerts from a supernatural entity. But for a lengthy time, art was just a passion job though he targeted on a songs job as one of the 4 members of the synth-pop band Ladytron.

“(Photography) begun as an all-consuming hobby,” he explained in a mobile phone interview. But when Ladytron took a split in 2011 right after 5 studio albums (they produced a self-titled sixth album in 2019, and the seventh, “Time’s Arrow,” this month), he started a new occupation from scratch. “Whilst the others did their individual solo initiatives, creating their very own music and releasing their very own albums, this was my solo project.”

Wu’s imagery requires a classic photographer’s mixture — light-weight and landscape — and marries the two in transformative means. He typically starts with dusky evening gentle or the ink-black shadows of evening, then strategically illuminates portions of the scene with custom-constructed customer drones. In a person picture, a shiny horizontal line hangs over a glacier in the Peruvian Andes, revealing the brilliance of the ice versus a darkish sky. In a various motion piece, Wu simulated an electrical storm in Goblin Valley, Utah, but with completely straight strikes of mild somewhat than the jagged bursts of lightning.

The artist’s 2018 image reserve “Lux Noctis” is in the collections of the Guggenheim and Museum of Contemporary Artwork, in New York, and he has shot commercial do the job for Apple, Audi and Google as properly as the DJ and songs producer Zedd. Previous summer, Wu unveiled a colossal task for Nationwide Geographic: a go over tale and timelapse multimedia piece about Stonehenge, which showcased the enigmatic monument lit by his personalized drones. In November, a single of his NFTs, a 4K movie loop titled “An Irresistible Power,” outperformed its large estimate by about 25% all through an auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, marketing at 441,000 HKD (about $56,500).

“I couldn’t have dreamed of wherever I am now,” Wu explained. “I just preferred to be able to make a dwelling from executing artwork and from doing photography.”

Alien inspiration

Wu has normally been drawn to wild, remote destinations in which he could find solitude. His mom and dad immigrated from Hong Kong to the Uk in advance of he was born, and he grew up an introverted youngster in Liverpool, he mentioned, who didn’t very simply click with university. He was fascinated with science-fiction films that combine the alien with the day-to-day, these as Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind,” which featured Wyoming’s Devils Tower as a website for extraterrestrial call. (Unfamiliar with American topography, he originally believed the butte, a countrywide monument, was a fictional geological entity, he discussed with a giggle).

The film’s visuals of remote desert scenes mixed with eerie lights have been a formative inspiration in his personal function. “(It is really) cemented into my mind, the plan of these seemingly unattainable lights going by way of the sky, type of like lookup lights on quite everyday (American) landscapes,” he said.

Reuben Wu has traveled extensively to remote places in the US and further than for his work. Listed here, he traveled to Bolivia’s salt flats, utilizing the vast, vacant land as his canvas. Credit rating: Reuben Wu

He embarked on his to start with cross-nation pictures trip throughout the US in 2013, close to a ten years soon after receiving a flavor on the street with Ladytron. The resulting series highlighted vivid depictions of the Grand Canyon and South Dakota Badlands, as very well as a time-lapse graphic of Devils Tower at evening amongst star trails.

Two many years afterwards, Wu learned the result that drone lights could have on the purely natural planet though doing work on an outside automotive shoot.

“I flew the drone up previously mentioned some cliffs, and I was totally fascinated by the impact it had on the real landscape,” he spelled out. It designed the cliffs glow, achieving spots that ended up or else unattainable to mild artificially.

Wu's earliest inspiration came from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," inspiring his interest in the American West.

Wu’s earliest inspiration arrived from “Shut Encounters of the Third Variety,” inspiring his fascination in the American West. Credit history: Reuben Wu

Wu rigs lights on drones to go well with his needs on any presented shoot or project. The first iteration, he said, which he utilized when the know-how was nevertheless nascent, was a “significant” eight-rotor drone outfitted with home made lights that only experienced about eight minutes of flight time. The up coming made use of a 3D-printed bracket with an LED sizzling light, but nevertheless only gave him an added two minutes in the air. The tech he employs now presents him a little bit extra breathing space, with a half hour to fly out, capture photos and return to him, but he’s had to master to work in the bounds of just about every set-up.

“I am a ton fewer nervous now, because I’ve crashed a variety of drones,” he stated. “And in the close, they are just resources.”

Experimental sequence

Following creating sequence of still illustrations or photos this kind of as “Lux Noctis” and “Aeroglyphs,” which experiment with ghostly lighting and geometric styles in the skies, Wu observed himself seeking to integrate motion and sound into his get the job done since of his individual history in tunes. He began making 15-next video clip loops from his visuals, exhibiting mild beams forming patterns or the moon arcing across the sky, to the beats of atmospheric digital tunes that he produced.

“These (will work) have been really a lot experimental and experienced no end goal — they have been just issues that I did for enjoy out of really like,” he mentioned. “I could not license them, I couldn’t print them… and so they were just there, stacking likes on my Instagram.”

Wu has been commissioned to shoot in various locations, including the New Mexico badlands. This image came from a 20-hour shoot.

Wu has been commissioned to shoot in a variety of spots, which includes the New Mexico badlands. This image arrived from a 20-hour shoot. Credit score: Reuben Wu

But in January 2021, Wu observed a way to make them a much more significant portion of his career when he was released to NFT artwork. He minted his initially “non-fungible token” on the marketplace Foundation two months afterwards — an “aeroglyph” of bright strains forming a rectangle over a beachside cliff. It sold for 30 ETH ($45,000), a part of which he donated to the National Parks Conservation Association and the AAPI Local community Fund. Later on that yr, the website3 arts group Obscura commissioned him to make a new established of photographs titled “Aeroglyph Variations,” which took him into the New Mexico badlands for a 20-hour shoot that resulted in 55 photos of the very same placing, each with unique lighting ailments and patterns. Wu has also experimented with presenting the work in different strategies, from animations, to AR experiences, to projection mapping transferring illustrations or photos onto actual physical prints.

“It really is pretty much a hybrid medium, and so I might like to broaden that horizon even more, and assume about the conclude purpose for my do the job,” he mentioned. “Am I developing a good piece of artwork for individuals to appear at and appreciate, or am I creating an encounter for people to share?”

Wu is leaning in direction of the latter as he continues to experiment with the sort his perform requires, but no issue the medium, his vision of and solution to the organic earth stays consistent.

“A great deal of persons generally say that my operate is otherworldly — that is the initially term that individuals feel of when they feel about my do the job,” he reported. “But I am not making an attempt to build an alien-on the lookout picture I’m striving to demonstrate that this is our earth. And there are so quite a few new means that are available to see it that can renew your perspective.”