Whilst touring the world as a musician, Reuben Wu found a new passion: photography. The multidisciplinary artist uses the concepts of time and space to tell compelling stories about the vast world we inhabit. He speaks to Nina Knaack about making art with drones and his search for ideas that have never been done before.
Reuben Wu has wanted to be an artist for as long as he can remember. Whilst at school, he felt like an outsider, and left with a hunger for recognition and success. “It galvanised me,” he says. “I wanted to become so good that I could not be ignored by anyone.”
That mindset has stuck with him ever since, but whilst Reuben is now known around the world as a photographer, he originally channelled his creative energy via a different medium: music. In 1999, he formed the electronic band Ladytron with friends in Liverpool; what started as a side project became a music career of ten years that took him around the world.
“I quit my industrial designer job to focus on the band full time,” he recalls. “The music was extremely rewarding. Our intention was to make the music that we wanted to make, and that no one else was making.” Ladytron gave the keyboardist a sense of belonging within this small group of indie music lovers that he hadn't felt before.
Awkward and quiet as a child, Reuben explains that he spent most of his time drawing or exploring on his own; losing himself in national parks or his own imagination. Feeling most at home in nature, travelling with the band gave him the opportunity to discover some of the most beautiful places on earth. Whilst on tour, the urge to document the landscapes around him led him to his current craft.
Although he was accustomed to drawing scenery, Reuben noticed that it was too time consuming with his surroundings changing so quickly. “We were touring all over the world and I wanted to ensure that I didn't miss a single thing, so I picked up a camera as a way of making an image diary.” Starting out with just the camera attachment on a Palm Pilot, Reuben’s first photos were “low-bit, low-resolution, horrible greyscale pictures.”
He soon upgraded to a normal smartphone with a built-in camera, but felt, still, that there was something missing in the digital shots they produced. Experimenting with a range of different mediums and tools, he found his way to film photography. “I discovered this texture, this beautiful quality to the negatives that digital did not have,” he recalls.
Enjoying the ritualistic practices that accompany film, Reuben began to think about photography as a craft, more than simply just photos. “It involves setting up your camera, loading film, sending the film off, and then scanning the negatives,” he explains. “I realised that doing photography tapped into the visual art side of me that I had always connected with through drawing.”
Having been drawn to wild places since early childhood, Reuben’s love for nature is rooted within him. “Being by myself in nature taught me about the value of solitude and the sublime landscape. I never felt more alive and free than being alone in the mountains.” This, combined with Reuben’s obsession with science fiction, explains his fascination for the natural and the supernatural, the known and the unknown.
“Every day we are bombarded with beautiful photos of our world. I strongly felt I needed to go beyond that.”
— Reuben Wu
To create the sense of ambiguity that he loves so much in his work, Reuben started to use a drone as a kind of flying light beam, with the navigation systems enabling him to create geometric shapes in the air. “I use the semi-automatic manoeuvre of the drone to paint a light source for, or frame around, my subject matter within a landscape,” he explains.
Reuben’s original photographic methods bless him with a unique sense of freedom. “The old adage of waiting for the right moment and the right light was not enough. I needed to create it, not wait for it. I really like the fact that this aesthetic and these images transcend their own medium. I am always looking for elusive things that were not thought to be possible before.”
“I needed to cross boundaries.”
— Reuben Wu
When Ladytron collectively decided to take a break from music, Reuben knew that he had to pursue photography. Reuben made it his mission to experiment with different cameras and different mediums. Recalling the sense of opportunity he felt upon discovering film photography, Reuben embraced the idea of capturing reality in a new way. “I really like this idea of the camera being able to reveal so much more about the landscape than the eye can see,” he says.
The years that followed were not at all easy, and Reuben struggled to decide what kind of photographer he wanted to be. It was around this time that he moved to the US, travelling for commercial work whilst he pursued his own style.
“Photography, for me, should be about the picture itself and whether it moves you in some way,” he says, noting that film photography, by contrast, had become limiting for him. He wanted to push boundaries in a different way. “I wanted to create new, special art that people did not expect, and I realised that I needed to cross boundaries within the medium of photography in order to do that.”
“I am keen to always explore what is new.”
— Reuben Wu
Reuben embraced digital photography once again, and started to experiment with the features that accompanied it, from video to time-lapse. But it was in new technologies where Reuben felt most comfortable, using drones to capture images create artificial lighting. Venturing out to remote locations, drones illuminated vast natural structures in ways that they had never been shown before.
“I tried to approach landscape photography in a way that felt new and original,” he explains. “Every day we are bombarded with beautiful photos of our world. I strongly felt I needed to go beyond that and asked myself, ‘How can I change my own perception of our planet, and make it seem new and unexplored?’”
In that light, the link with web3 is easily made. “I like jumping into things that other people are not doing,” Reuben notes, explaining how he minted his first work in January 2021, at a time when there were not many photographers minting on the blockchain. “Maybe I also never really felt like a true photographer”, he muses. “In a way, my work looks like renderings and, perhaps because of that, they easily fitted in with the NFTs of digital artists. In general, I just do not feel bound to the rules of a medium. I am keen to always explore what is new.”
The reward for that exploration has been turning a hobby into a career that is both prosperous and developmental. “Minting NFTs has motivated me to spend more time on my personal work,” Reuben explains. “I finally had an end goal for autonomous projects and it shortened the cycle of creation, because you finalise a piece by minting it. It forced me to be sure of my work before immortalising it on the blockchain forever.”
And beyond a career, web3 has provided Reuben with collaborators and community that engenders the same feeling of belonging provided by Ladytron years ago. “Web3 has allowed me the freedom to create the work that I love.” It also helped him find it.