It’s common these days, with the proliferation of mass internet content, that successful artists find themselves at the mercy of the media, and in that, having to explain what their artwork represents or how it’s defined. When one looks at the work of British photographer Reuben Wu, one instantly conjures comparisons to surrealism, science-fiction and other-worldly environs. But according to the man himself, “It’s not science fiction which serves as my inspiration, it is actually the real world.”
When Wu was a kid, he fancied drawing over photography. This is, of course, no surprise, as staying inside the lines is a lot more graspable to children than that of compositional principles. The obsession with shooting came while on tour with his band, Ladytron, a new-wave electropop band Wu and his DJ-pal Daniel Hunt started in the late 90s. The band was quite successful, and in 2002, Wu decided to drop his career as an industrial designer and focus on gigging full-time. Ladytron’s tours took Wu all over the world almost immediately after full formation of the band. While traveling to countries like China, Russia and those of South America, Wu began taking photos to document his travels, and thus, a photographer was born. The visual arts aspect is one that brought the two mediums together for him. “I have always imagined music with pictures and imagined pictures with music. They are narratives of the same thing and also share the same inspirations [and] commonalities in composition.”
The preference of many photographers today is strictly digital, though Wu has found his niche within that of a combination of film processes and digital techniques. His process of using film cameras prepares his mindset in a unique way, allowing him perspective on the editing task that will inevitably follow. “Sometimes, it takes a few months after the experience to process and realize the gravity of the work. This is one of the reasons why working with analogue photography really helps artistic expression. It is never a quick fix like digital can be.” The physicality of shooting with dated film cameras is charm-inducing to Wu as well. “[It’s] almost as if the physical weight of the equipment allows me to truly appreciate the things and places I decide to take a picture of.”
Wu identifies himself alongside the sublime landscape painters of the 19th Century, whose work, as so elegantly defined by philosopher Edmund Burke, refers to “the thrill and danger of confronting untamed nature and its overwhelming forces.” Wu’s work mimics the philosophy as well as the physical properties of such paintings. Many of his photos have a brush-stroke-like quality to them, while never negating the terror, which as Burke put it, “is the ruling principle of the sublime.” The terror in Wu’s photo’s refers to the often bleak and massively-open landscapes – so massive, in fact, that he includes his wife in many of his shots to illustrate scale. “Extreme environments draw me in because civilizations can’t get a foothold,” explains Wu. “Survival or normal living is a struggle, and it’s that story of the struggle which interests me.” A fraction of that struggle gets dumped on Wu’s shoulders when he attempts to photograph such places.
During a shoot in Svalbard, an archipelago near the North Pole and one of the world’s northernmost inhabited places, Wu found himself struggling to set up his tripod through waist-deep snowdrifts and temperatures so cold that his face was sticking to his viewfinder. On the opposite end of that spectrum, he’s quite fond of fiery places as well. A recent viral sensation of Wu’s was his series on the Kawah Ijen crater on the island of Java in Indonesia. It’s no secret why this particular location drew his attention. The Blue Fire Crater as it’s known, is a volcano formed by layer upon layer of hardened lava and ash. It’s made famous by the the vibrant blue liquid sulfur that flows through the caverns reaching such extreme temperatures of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit – the perfect landscape for a photographer who favors the uninhabitable. The subsequent photos were that of an utterly noxious environment viewed through rose-colored glasses.
A comparison to surrealism often crops up with Wu’s viewers as well. Surrealism was a cultural and artistic movement which began in the 1920s with a group of artists and writers living in Paris. The group’s philosophy was that surrealism would “advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination.” Herein lies the comparison to Wu’s photography. A quick Instagram-style-swipe through Wu’s feed and you’ll notice a nature-ridden concept: mountains, trees, water, desert, ice, rocks. But upon closer examination, you’ll notice the peculiar color pallets alongside remarkable and intriguing compositions. For example, endless photos exist of Mount Rushmore, the 60-foot head-only sculptures of U.S. Presidents overlooking the South Dakota landscape, but how many show the sole profile of President Washington peaking around the corner of a granite peak with star tracers passing by? This particular perspective offers viewers a chance to imagine a monolithic Washington standing alone within the canyons, looking out over the beautiful country he once ruled. Or, as per the surrealists’ philosophy, it’s a composition that’s “open to the full range of imagination.” Though, unlike the surrealist artists who convened in droves when participating in artistic expression, Wu prefers artistic solitude. “As a lone operator,” he says, “the work I create without collaboration has had the clearest vision and [is] especially meaningful when travel is involved and few people are with me.” Sometimes, however, he gets the best of both worlds. A recent collaboration with Istanbul-based fashion designer Günseli Türkay, has Wu’s solo projects brushed upon a stylish collection of women’s wear.
Wu’s vision seems to be along the lines of a call for help, not for himself, but for the planet. His pension for traveling to distant lands to discover the undiscoverable is an idea he’s constantly highlighting in his photographs, and it’s often in those undiscoverable places where the planet shows its ultimate vulnerability. “I think the role of art,” Wu clarifies, “is to take an unfamiliar thing and make it familiar or to put something unknown into the social consciousness and make it more understood.” Though the troubles of our planet are becoming more and more familiar as the years go by, Wu’s photographs are an additional step in the right direction, a direction of honesty which highlights the terror alongside the beauty.