Musician-turned-visual artist Reuben Wu's experimental photographic series has won him worldwide acclaim
Growing up in Liverpool with parents from Hong Kong, visual artist Reuben Wu is also a successful musician and music producer, having co-founded the British electro band Ladytron in 1999. The group have released six albums, including one last month. He recently added a new string to his bow – photography perhaps inherited from his grandfather Ho Look-ying, a famous cinematographer active in Chinese films of the 1960s. Wu has also created his own otherworldly and imaginary landscape universe with his drone-assisted photography series Lux Noctis, for which he has won multiple awards and a cult following; the series has now appeared in a book. It brought him to Hong Kong late last year as a speaker at American office furniture and design brand Steelcase's 'In the Creative Chair' series of talks. Perspective spoke to the cross-disciplinary artist, now based in Chicago, about his career transition and ties with Hong Kong.
Fill us in on your journey from a musician to a photographer.
Photography started out as a hobby, initially as a travel diary. We were touring all these incredible places like China, America, South America, Mexico and Russia. They are great places for me to take photographs and record while we are travelling. And then in 2011, we took a break from the band. That's when I went into visual arts full time, working for commercial clients and fine-art projects. Just by knowing people in the industry and continuing to build up work, that helped me develop into a photographer.
Tell us about the concept behind your Lux Noctis photographic series.
There's a lot of thinking behind it but it's really to show landscapes in a completely new light. When you show familiar things in an unfamiliar light, it forces people to see harder and allows them to renew their perception of the place. Because every day you see pictures of the Grand Canyon, it's boring but when you're able to show it in a different way, you're making people see new things. There are a lot of beautiful landscapes in America you don't get to see in the UK. Now that I live in America, it's easier for me to get to these places and it's also going back to my response to a lot of photos that you've seen of these places.
What inspired you to conceive such visual works? Are they physically challenging to create?
My pictures aim to show fiction or stories based on reality. I'm inspired by 19th-century romantic paintings and films, which occur closer to our world, speculative science-fiction like Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. I came across the idea of doing artificial lighting in a natural landscape. I discovered it completely by accident in the desert when someone's car had the headlights on the landscape I was shooting; that made me realise how I could make a landscape photo of my own and really craft it. I was also shooting with drones. It's those two ways of thinking of combining into one, showing these landscape in a completely new way. My toolkit is pretty compact as I need to physically carry everything with me through harsh terrain, a lot of time by myself, as I have to climb and hike. I need to carry the drone, high-power LED light, tripod and camera, and batteries. I generally use one drone and hope I don't crash it.
How are these surreal, otherworldly images made?
Total darkness is important because I need complete control of the lighting without any interference from the sun, the moon or city lights. Since I'm working in complete darkness, I am able to paint on a blank canvas or to paint light to darkness. I wanted to craft my own messages with my own experience in these places… these locations are carefully chosen. I also do a lot of research as I look for scale, colour, texture and anything that will benefit from aerial lighting. In some of the photos, I decided to capture the paths of the drone itself. Instead of using them as flying cameras, I use them as flying light beams. This is an attempt to interact with the landscape without touching it or interfering with it. My intention is not to produce alienlooking images, but to remind people this is our own planet. I want to create an awareness that someday we're not going to have what we're having at the moment. Shooting at a glacier is very different from the desert because in a very short time it's going to melt and vanish. I try to preserve memory for future generations.
What role does technology play in your shoots?
It plays a large part in my work. Drones make it easy to do aerial-based things. My background is in technology. I used to be an industrial designer for a few years and have a master's in engineering, so I really enjoy using technology. More importantly, I like to try using technology in ways it's not been designed for, because it's more exciting. It's more rewarding if I'm doing something original with technology. If I'm using it for its intended use, it's kind of lazy.
I'm also combining old and new techniques as a way to create new realities through images, for example, using long exposure technique to show a passage of time.
You have also taken some good shots of Hong Kong. What is your connection to the city?
Hong Kong is a photogenic city and one of the most photographed cities in the world. My parents met and married in Hong Kong and moved to the UK in the 1970s. I've been going back to Hong Kong occasionally. It's been a place I've been lucky enough to visit since I was very young. Not everyone gets that.
What's your background in design?
Before music, I was doing industrial design. There was definitely a lead from design to music, though no real link between the two. I have designed products such as aspirin healers and pharmaceutical products. One of the things I designed is [still found] in Hong Kong – the scooters with a big delivery box on the back. I designed that 15 years ago for the consultancy called Team Consulting in England. Its licence has since been bought by a Korean scooter company and I have seen it in the US, Europe, Australia and Hong Kong.
I'm collaborating on a camera bag design for a new brand that's probably launching early this year. I'm also working with another product line for a big brand specialising in camera gear based on my own user experience.
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