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How photographer Reuben Wu makes chic landscapes of the American West

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The primary time Reuben Wu noticed the nice and cozy sandstone hues and huge, open skies of the American West, he was watching the landscapes move him by from the window of a tour bus.

The British visible artist, now based mostly in Chicago, has develop into identified for his chic imagery of distant landscapes utilizing drone lighting, enhancing craggy peaks with halos, or writing glyphs within the sky like alerts from a supernatural entity. However for a very long time, artwork was only a ardour undertaking whereas he targeted on a music profession as one of many 4 members of the synth-pop band Ladytron.

“(Images) began as an all-consuming pastime,” he defined in a telephone interview. However when Ladytron took a break in 2011 after 5 studio albums (they launched a self-titled sixth album in 2019, and the seventh, “Time’s Arrow,” this month), he started a brand new profession from scratch. “Whereas the others did their very own solo initiatives, making their very own music and releasing their very own albums, this was my solo undertaking.”

Wu’s imagery takes a traditional photographer’s mixture—mild and panorama—and marries the 2 in transformative methods. He typically begins with dusky night mild or the ink-black shadows of evening, then strategically illuminates parts of the scene with custom-built client drones. In a single picture, a brilliant horizontal line hangs over a glacier within the Peruvian Andes, revealing the brilliance of the ice towards a darkish sky. In a unique movement piece, Wu simulated {an electrical} storm in Goblin Valley, Utah, however with completely straight strikes of sunshine somewhat than the jagged bursts of lightning.

The artist’s 2018 picture ebook “Lux Noctis” is within the collections of the Guggenheim and Museum of Fashionable Artwork, in New York, and he has shot industrial work for Apple, Audi and Google in addition to the DJ and music producer Zedd. Final summer time, Wu revealed a colossal undertaking for Nationwide Geographic: a canopy story and timelapse multimedia piece about Stonehenge, which featured the enigmatic monument lit by his {custom} drones. In November, one in all his NFTs of him, a 4K video loop titled “An Irresistible Power,” outperformed its excessive estimate by over 25% throughout an public sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, promoting at 441,000 HKD (about $56,500).

“I could not have dreamed of the place I’m now,” Wu mentioned. “I simply needed to have the ability to make a residing from doing artwork and from doing pictures.”

Alien inspiration

Wu has all the time been drawn to wild, distant locations the place he might discover solitude. His dad and mom immigrated from Hong Kong to the UK earlier than he was born, and he grew up an introverted baby in Liverpool, he mentioned, who didn’t fairly click on with college. He was fascinated with science-fiction movies that blend the alien with the on a regular basis, resembling Steven Spielberg’s “Shut Encounters of the Third Variety,” which featured Wyoming’s Devils Tower as a web site for extraterrestrial contact. (Unfamiliar with American topography, he initially thought the butte, a nationwide monument, was a fictional geological entity, he defined with amusing).

The movie’s visuals of distant desert scenes combined with eerie lights have been a formative inspiration in his personal work. “(It is) cemented into my mind, the concept of ​​these seemingly unimaginable lights shifting via the sky, sort of like search lights on very peculiar (American) landscapes,” he mentioned.

Reuben Wu has traveled extensively to distant locations within the US and past for his work. Right here, he traveled to Bolivia’s salt flats, utilizing the huge, empty land as his canvas. Credit score: Reuben Wu

He launched into his first cross-country pictures journey throughout the US in 2013, round a decade after getting a style on the street with Ladytron. The ensuing collection featured vivid depictions of the Grand Canyon and South Dakota Badlands, in addition to a time-lapse picture of Devils Tower at evening amongst star trails.

Two years later, Wu found the impact that drone lighting might have on the pure world whereas engaged on an out of doors automotive shoot.

“I flew the drone up above some cliffs, and I used to be completely fascinated by the impact it had on the precise panorama,” he defined. It made the cliffs glow, reaching areas that had been in any other case unimaginable to mild artificially.

Wu's earliest inspiration came from

Wu’s earliest inspiration got here from “Shut Encounters of the Third Variety,” inspiring his curiosity within the American West. Credit score: Reuben Wu

Wu rigs lights on drones to swimsuit his wants on any given shoot or undertaking. The primary iteration, he mentioned, which he used when the know-how was nonetheless nascent, was a “huge” eight-rotor drone outfitted with do-it-yourself lights that solely had about eight minutes of flight time. The following used a 3D-printed bracket with an LED sizzling mild, however nonetheless solely gave him a further two minutes within the air. The tech he makes use of now offers him a bit extra respiration room, with a half hour to fly out, seize photographs and return to him, however he is needed to be taught to work inside the bounds of every set-up.

“I am quite a bit much less anxious now, as a result of I’ve crashed a lot of drones,” he mentioned. “And ultimately, they’re simply instruments.”

experimental collection

After growing collection of nonetheless photographs resembling “Lux Noctis” and “Aeroglyphs,” which experiment with ghostly lighting and geometric shapes within the skies, Wu discovered himself wanting to include movement and sound into his work due to his personal background in music. He started creating 15-second video loops from his photographs of him, displaying mild beams forming patterns or the moon arcing throughout the sky, to the beats of atmospheric digital music that he produced.

“These (works) had been very a lot experimental and had no finish aim—they had been simply issues that I did for love out of affection,” he mentioned. “I could not license them, I could not print them… and they also had been simply 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 varied places, together with the New Mexico badlands. This picture got here from a 20-hour shoot. Credit score: Reuben Wu

However in January 2021, Wu discovered a strategy to make them a extra substantial a part of his profession when he was launched to NFT artwork. He minted his first “non-fungible token” on {the marketplace} Basis two months later—an “aeroglyph” of brilliant traces forming a rectangle above a beachside cliff. It bought for 30 ETH ($45,000), a portion of which he donated to the Nationwide Parks Conservation Affiliation and the AAPI Group Fund. Later that yr, the web3 arts group Obscura commissioned him to supply a brand new set of photographs titled “Aeroglyph Variations,” which took him into the New Mexico badlands for a 20-hour shoot that resulted in 55 photographs of the identical setting, every with completely different lighting situations and patterns. Wu has additionally experimented with presenting the work in numerous methods, from animations, to AR experiences, to projection mapping shifting photographs onto bodily prints.

“It is very a lot a hybrid medium, and so I might prefer to develop that horizon much more, and take into consideration the top aim for my work,” he mentioned. “Am I creating a pleasant piece of artwork for folks to take a look at and admire, or am I creating an expertise for folks to share?”

Wu is leaning in direction of the latter as he continues to experiment with the shape his work takes, however regardless of the medium, his imaginative and prescient of and strategy to the pure world stays constant.

“Lots of people all the time say that my work is otherworldly — that’s the first phrase that folks consider when they consider my work,” he mentioned. “However I am not making an attempt to create an alien-looking picture; I am making an attempt to indicate that that is our planet. And there are such a lot of new methods which might be accessible to see it that may renew your perspective.”

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