The ancient philosophical concept of the music of the spheres holds that mathematical relationships express tones, and that these mathematical relationships, in relation to the movements of celestial bodies, create a kind of harmony. If you could see it manifested visually in the nighttime sky, it might look something like what you see in a photograph by Reuben Wu.
A landscape photographer who’s discovered a unique way to illuminate large swaths of terrain at night, Wu captures images of linear patterns in the sky. Using high-powered LED lights affixed to a drone, he bathes the landscapes below in ethereal light.
Wu is originally from Liverpool, England, but now lives in Illinois. His first solo exhibition in Santa Fe, Aeroglyphs & Other Nocturnes, opens Friday, Aug. 30, at Photo-eye Gallery, and it will be on view through Nov. 16.
Wu — who is becoming as well-known for his photography as he is for being the keyboardist, co-songwriter, and producer of the British electronic-music band Ladytron — started off pursuing photography as a hobby. Camera in hand, he found time, while the band was on tour, to take pictures around the cities where they played, occasionally venturing farther afield, seeking out places that were free from the noise and crowds of urban centers. “Traveling with the band almost became like a passport to progressing my photography and to seeing new places,” the 44-year-old told Pasatiempo. “For instance, when we did a tour of Australia, I decided to book my travel a week in advance to go to New Zealand to take pictures for a week. It got to the point where I decided I’m just going to go to a place where the band just won’t play shows, like the North Pole, and the whole trip would be dedicated to photography. That was when the music started to take a back seat and I began to focus solely on photography.”
Empty places attract Wu. Not desolate, but devoid of people and as untrammeled as a landscape can be in a time when few areas of the world remain unexplored. In part, that’s why he chooses to shoot at night. Fewer people.
But the night has another draw for the photographer, as well. “My senses are amplified to a degree where I feel more aware of my surroundings, in a kind of strange, overt way,” he said. “Being there at night allows me to see a part of the landscape which is hidden during the day, and also gives me a sense of discovering a place for the first time.”
In Lux Noctis, his first major body of work, examples of which are on view in the gallery, many of the landscape features are lit by an unseen light source. What’s remarkable about the photographs, most of which are printed at about 15 by 20 inches, is just how much illumination he can muster. He lights mountainous vistas, rock formations, cliffs, and glaciers, and teases out deep, rich, vibrant colors — like the vermillion tones of a painted desert or the pastel lilac hues of striated rocks, which might look merely grayish-white during the day.
“He initially started off with the desire to, essentially, paint the landscape with light,” said gallery director Anne Kelly. “He was going out of his way to hide the light source.”
That light source — emanating from the drone — may have been kept out of sight, but he would still need to position the drone at several locations in space in order to capture enough of the scene during the timed exposure. “Rather than wait for the sun or the moon to be at the right angle, and play the waiting game, I would actually wait until I had this black canvas of darkness, and be able to get the lighting very specific, in exactly the way I wanted it to be, just as you would light something in a studio, where you position the light.”
During a long enough exposure, the light on the drone could create a linear streak across the sky, and that luminous dash could be captured by the camera. Seeking a way to interact with the landscape in a more visceral way, Wu decided to incorporate those thin bands of light in the sky into the images. This led to a second body of work he calls Aeroglyphs, because the light streaks, which could be configured into specific geometric configurations depending on how the drone was positioned, resemble petroglyphs or geoglyphs, etched in the sky rather than on land or rock.
Wu said he was inspired by the land art movement, which emerged in the 1960s and ’70s with artists such as Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, whose projects included large-scale earthworks and altered landscapes. Rather than changing the landscape in any physical way, Wu wanted to leave it untouched. “I would just be using light as an installation,” he said.
In images where the path of the drone can be seen, the light makes the landscape visible but also forms a contrast to it — the geometry of the drone’s path at odds with the natural, organic forms. In LN 0309, from the Lux Noctis series, an ovoid band of light, like a halo, hovers over the white-tipped pinnacle of a rock spire. In AE 0394, from the Aeroglyphs series, an equilateral triangle rests just above the horizon, over the sea, reflecting off the surface of the water. The play of light on the water is a way you can tell the image isn’t retouched by Photoshop. Kelly said that such reflections have become something of a litmus test in photography if the source of an image is called into question, because it’s a feature that’s exceedingly difficult to reproduce with software. Wu’s light streams are there — located in physical space — and all of the effects are created in-camera.
He uses a Phase One medium-format camera for his work, and that allows him to retain a high degree of fidelity to the minutest details of the landscape. Using a tripod, he positions the camera, which remains stationary for the shoot. The only thing that changes is the position of the drone. The length of the exposure is determined by the distance of the features he wants to highlight. The closer the subject, the less time is needed, because the light source is closer, too, and brighter. Capturing a geologic feature that’s, say, half a mile distant, might require more time — like a minute’s worth of exposure — in order for the camera to receive enough light so that an image can be seen clearly.
Wu can easily spend an entire day scoping out a location and carefully planning a shoot. The payoff is a still that is technically well executed and astonishingly vivid for nighttime photography. No indication of the exact location is given in the titles. Each image is at once familiar and otherworldly, haunting and oddly beautiful, the way a vista can only be at night.
“One of the things about landscape photography — it’s a genre I’m really drawn to — is there’s so much history behind it. It’s so hard to do something that’s really different,” gallery director Kelly said. “I see him as a real innovator.”
Wu’s choice to eliminate place names from his subjects is multifold. On one hand, naming a location takes away some of the mystery or ambiguity inherent in the image. “It’s more about being free of time, and being on a geologic timescale, where the names of places don’t have relevance anymore,” he said.
Another consideration is the fact that many of the locations he chooses are fragile ecosystems, easily threatened by human activity. By calling attention to them in any explicit way, he risks drawing the crowds. But, ultimately, his work is about recasting the known world in a way that makes it feel fresh and new.
“Being able to show a familiar landscape in an unfamiliar light makes people open their eyes a bit more,” he said. “That’s important to me — being able to change those perceptions and show how precious these places are.” ◀
▼ Reuben Wu: Aeroglyphs & Other Nocturnes
▼ Photo-eye Gallery, 541 S. Guadalupe St., 505-988-5152, photoeye.com
▼ Reception 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30; through Nov. 16