Visual Culture
In Reuben Wu’s Photography, a View of Another World
Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

In the dead of night at 16,000 feet in the Andes of northern Peru, Reuben Wu trekked through the treacherous icy terrain, camera and drone in hand, to capture Cordillera Blanca’s ephemeral glaciers. After poring over maps, compiling research, and adjusting his plans according to the weather and the phase of the moon, Wu set out, armed with a flask of the region’s coca tea.
His goal, as with many of his projects, revolved around depicting places that appear free from a specific time or location. Lighting his scenes with drones, Wu illustrates the strength of the natural world, and “the magnitude of of time” that it took for these settings to form. Part of his ongoing project “Lux Noctis,” this latest group of fantastical atmospheric photos are inspired by what he deems the “anachronistic combination” of science fiction and 19th-century painting. (The Guggenheim and Met carry the series’s eponymous book.)
Born in Liverpool, the 43-year-old, who is also the co-founder of the band Ladytron, chronicles his ethereal interventions in natural landscapes—particularly those of the U.S. deserts. His love affair with scenes of arid landscapes, however, has deeper roots.
Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

In stark contrast to the uplands and river banks of Liverpool, the desolate expanses of the West Coast wound into Wu’s childhood dreams. “I had been fascinated with the American landscape from a very early age, since I was a little boy reading National Geographic,” he said. “They were so different from the landscapes I was used to in the U.K. [They were] quite sublime and dramatic.” Their renderings in the realm of speculative fiction in film, literature, and art would serve as fodder for Wu’s otherworldly conceptions.
Universes like that of the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that “took place in our time and our world” but toyed with memory, past, and future, Wu said, “really impacted my sense of reality.” Strange, apocalyptic imaginings comprised Wu’s fledgling influences, as well: for instance, British novelist J.G. Ballard’s deserted highways and homes in 1980s–90s suburban England or T.S. Eliot’s notion of time in “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets. ’s ghostly landscapes and ’s massive nature-inspired artworks also played a role—particularly the volcano in the latter’s Cotopaxi (1862), its smoke blotting out the sun.
Open Slideshow
3 Images
View Slideshow
While initially drawn to art, Wu was dissuaded in favor of practicality. He instead began a career in industrial design, while DJing and producing music on the side. After Ladytron was signed to a label, he quit his day job in 1999 to tour the United States.
Seeing the dramatic American vistas with his own eyes initiated his surreal photography, Wu said. He first picked up a camera to occupy time and catalogue his travels, but he was soon spending countless hours experimenting with techniques and equipment, trying out analog cameras and vintage or expired film.
Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

During a break from making music several years ago, “the ritual and the technique of photographing” became all-encompassing, he explained. “The band took kind of a back seat.”
Today, his process still employs experimentation—most recently with drones. The revelation of using external light sources came when a pair of unexpected headlights illuminated the Trona Pinnacles, a striking geological formation in the Californian desert, at the darkest time of night.
NASA’s rover images of lunar landscapes have also informed Wu’s drone-lit formations. The abstract footage, disembodied and decontextualized by inky-black backdrops, he said, present a “jarring combination of science and technology…with the aesthetic of the sublime.”
To achieve a similar effect, Wu maps his compositions by day and waits for civil twilight, when soft tones still color the sky (roughly two hours post-sunset). His typical three-second exposures vary—longer if the drones are farther from the camera—and he uses various shutter speeds to create apparitional shapes above mountain peaks or in the sky.
Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

Courtesy of Reuben Wu.

“I’m essentially doing painting with photography,” Wu said. He aims for complete control of environmental light, but the final product will only appear subsequently, stitched together in the studio. Wu’s method remains intentionally non-invasive: He likened his interventions to without permanence, citing the artistry of and interwoven with ’s flare for the fluorescent and ’s infusion of the cosmic.
In cases like Cordillera Blanca’s rare tropical Pastoruri Glacier—what Wu calls “landscapes in peril”—the views he presents, momentarily frozen, are fleeting. The glacial ice will likely disappear within 10 years; “it’s melting that quickly,” he lamented—making his efforts, in his eyes, documentary for posterity.
Even amid well-known destinations, in the Badlands or the Grand Canyon, Wu imbues a sense of discovery, “bringing in the sense of unfamiliarity,” as he described, that unsettles and challenges viewers.
“That’s what exploration is to me,” he said. To Wu, it’s more than traversing a territory for the first time. “It’s absolutely the experience of seeing things that you’ve never seen before, and the act of looking.”
Ilana Herzig