How photographer Reuben Wu makes sublime landscapes of the American West

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The to start with time Reuben Wu observed the warm sandstone hues and large, open skies of the American West, he was viewing the landscapes move him by from the window of a tour bus.

The British visual artist, now based in Chicago, has become identified for his elegant imagery of distant landscapes making use of drone lights, enhancing craggy peaks with halos, or crafting glyphs in the sky like indicators from a supernatural entity. But for a extended time, art was just a passion undertaking when he concentrated on a tunes vocation as a person of the 4 customers of the synth-pop band Ladytron.

“(Pictures) commenced as an all-consuming passion,” he discussed in a phone job interview. But when Ladytron took a break in 2011 following five studio albums (they produced a self-titled sixth album in 2019, and the seventh, “Time’s Arrow,” this month), he commenced a new profession from scratch. “Whilst the many others did their individual solo projects, making their possess new music and releasing their possess albums, this was my solo venture.”

Wu’s imagery can take a traditional photographer’s mix — gentle and landscape — and marries the two in transformative techniques. He often begins with dusky evening gentle or the ink-black shadows of evening, then strategically illuminates portions of the scene with customized-constructed customer drones. In 1 graphic, a shiny horizontal line hangs in excess of a glacier in the Peruvian Andes, revealing the brilliance of the ice against a dim sky. In a different movement piece, Wu simulated an electrical storm in Goblin Valley, Utah, but with properly straight strikes of light-weight alternatively than the jagged bursts of lightning.

The artist’s 2018 photo book “Lux Noctis” is in the collections of the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern-day Artwork, in New York, and he has shot industrial get the job done for Apple, Audi and Google as well as the DJ and music producer Zedd. Final summer time, Wu discovered a colossal task for Countrywide Geographic: a protect tale and timelapse multimedia piece about Stonehenge, which featured the enigmatic monument lit by his custom made drones. In November, a person of his NFTs, a 4K video loop titled “An Irresistible Pressure,” outperformed its substantial estimate by around 25% during an auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, advertising at 441,000 HKD (about $56,500).

“I could not have dreamed of where by I am now,” Wu said. “I just wanted to be able to make a dwelling from performing artwork and from executing photography.”

Alien inspiration

Wu has generally been drawn to wild, distant destinations in which he could obtain solitude. His mom and dad immigrated from Hong Kong to the British isles in advance of he was born, and he grew up an introverted child in Liverpool, he reported, who failed to fairly click on with school. He was fascinated with science-fiction movies that combine the alien with the every day, these kinds of as Steven Spielberg’s “Near Encounters of the Third Kind,” which featured Wyoming’s Devils Tower as a website for extraterrestrial contact. (Unfamiliar with American topography, he initially considered the butte, a countrywide monument, was a fictional geological entity, he spelled out with a giggle).

The film’s visuals of distant desert scenes blended with eerie lights have been a formative inspiration in his very own operate. “(It can be) cemented into my brain, the concept of these seemingly not possible lights relocating as a result of the sky, type of like research lights on incredibly common (American) landscapes,” he said.

Reuben Wu has traveled extensively to remote places in the US and beyond for his work. Here, he traveled to Bolivia's salt flats, using the vast, empty land as his canvas.

Reuben Wu has traveled thoroughly to distant sites in the US and outside of for his do the job. In this article, he traveled to Bolivia’s salt flats, utilizing the broad, empty land as his canvas. Credit history: Reuben Wu

He embarked on his initial cross-nation photography trip throughout the US in 2013, about a ten years following having a flavor on the street with Ladytron. The resulting sequence highlighted vivid depictions of the Grand Canyon and South Dakota Badlands, as perfectly as a time-lapse picture of Devils Tower at evening between star trails.

Two a long time later, Wu identified the effect that drone lights could have on the all-natural environment though doing work on an outdoor automotive shoot.

“I flew the drone up earlier mentioned some cliffs, and I was completely fascinated by the impact it experienced on the true landscape,” he explained. It made the cliffs glow, reaching places that were being if not extremely hard to light-weight 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 “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” inspiring his interest in the American West. Credit: Reuben Wu

Wu rigs lights on drones to match his requires on any given shoot or undertaking. The very first iteration, he stated, which he made use of when the engineering was still nascent, was a “massive” 8-rotor drone outfitted with selfmade lights that only had about eight minutes of flight time. The subsequent employed a 3D-printed bracket with an LED sizzling mild, but still only gave him an supplemental two minutes in the air. The tech he utilizes now gives him a bit much more breathing space, with a half hour to fly out, seize pictures and return to him, but he is experienced to discover to work within the bounds of every set-up.

“I am a whole lot significantly less anxious now, mainly because I’ve crashed a selection of drones,” he explained. “And in the finish, they are just resources.”

Experimental collection

After establishing collection of nonetheless photographs this sort of as “Lux Noctis” and “Aeroglyphs,” which experiment with ghostly lighting and geometric designs in the skies, Wu identified himself seeking to integrate motion and seem into his do the job because of his own qualifications in audio. He commenced creating 15-next movie loops from his photos, demonstrating gentle beams forming styles or the moon arcing across the sky, to the beats of atmospheric digital songs that he developed.

“These (operates) were being very much experimental and experienced no conclude objective — they have been just things that I did for adore out of really like,” he stated. “I could not license them, I could not print them… and so they have been 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, such as the New Mexico badlands. This image came from a 20-hour shoot. Credit rating: Reuben Wu

But in January 2021, Wu located a way to make them a extra significant section of his vocation when he was introduced to NFT art. He minted his to start with “non-fungible token” on the marketplace Foundation two months later — an “aeroglyph” of vibrant lines forming a rectangle previously mentioned a beachside cliff. It marketed for 30 ETH ($45,000), a portion of which he donated to the National Parks Conservation Association and the AAPI Group Fund. Later on that year, the website3 arts group Obscura commissioned him to generate a new set of photos titled “Aeroglyph Versions,” which took him into the New Mexico badlands for a 20-hour shoot that resulted in 55 visuals of the exact location, each and every with diverse lighting conditions and patterns. Wu has also experimented with presenting the function in various means, from animations, to AR encounters, to projection mapping transferring images onto actual physical prints.

“It is really quite a lot a hybrid medium, and so I would like to develop that horizon even extra, and imagine about the finish aim for my function,” he claimed. “Am I producing a pleasant piece of artwork for people to glimpse at and value, or am I generating an experience for people to share?”

Wu is leaning to the latter as he proceeds to experiment with the sort his function usually takes, but no make a difference the medium, his vision of and strategy to the purely natural world remains steady.

“A ton of people constantly say that my work is otherworldly — that is the initially phrase that folks feel of when they believe about my get the job done,” he explained. “But I am not making an attempt to build an alien-on the lookout graphic I’m attempting to show that this is our earth. And there are so a lot of new approaches that are offered to see it that can renew your perspective.”