A conversation with Reuben Wu
by Pamela Chen
“I have weird quirks,” artist Reuben Wu tells me, “Maybe that affects how I make art and how I see the world around me.”
Reuben’s “quirks” are a series of curious contrasts. He is the introvert who started a live band, a digital innovator who draws upon age-old film and print techniques. His images look like they shouldn’t be possible in real life, yet he creates them in-camera and on location.
These contrasts give us a glimpse into the light-bending creativity, wilderness and solitude of Reuben’s world, and why his most recent artistic escapades suit him so well.
He has explored photography on his own terms, a medium he saw as “a kind of alchemy” that can transform something into something else. But I soon learned that Reuben’s alchemy isn’t about changing reality. He challenges time itself, to relive that feeling of seeing something again for the first time. He remixes photographic techniques both classic (long exposure) and modern (drones), and the resulting images invite us to look anew at our natural world.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Pamela: Something that people might not know about you is that you were a successful touring musician before you found photography.
Reuben: I formed the band with my friends in 1999. It was a hobby. I was a DJ, he was a producer, and we had two other friends who were vocalists. We thought, ‘let's do this thing and make the music that we want to make, that no one else was making.’ We started doing that. Immediately our first single got into the NME Single of the Week.
It was a pretty cool side hustle along with my design job at the time: while I was working as a designer, I was also going on tour, taking time off to go across Europe and America. We released six studio albums, and we pretty much toured solidly for about 10 years.
I did end up leaving my job in design because of all the opportunities that were coming in from music and travel. The music was extremely rewarding. Also, it was the touring that really motivated me to get into photography. If I hadn't done the band and if I hadn't done all this touring, I wouldn't be a photographer now.
I was interested in how these cameras worked. I was figuring out how to make them do things they weren't designed to do.
Pamela: Why is that?
Reuben: We were touring all over the world. As a person who really enjoyed drawing, I found that it was too time consuming to draw the things around me. So, I picked up a camera. It became a tour diary of the places that we were traveling. We were traveling to incredible places like North America, South America, all across Europe, China, Russia, Australia. Photography grew with the travel.
Pamela: I think I remember you telling me that you even put a camera on a Palm Pilot. What happened there?
Reuben: I got into Palm Pilots when I was working in design. They were the most geeky things, these liquid crystal display organizers. Then a new one came out that had this camera attachment on it, and I started taking pictures using that. They were really low-bit, low-resolution, horrible black-and-white pictures.
Then I upgraded to a normal phone with the first built-in camera. I've been playing with phone cameras from the very beginning. But then I think I became disillusioned with digital photography because when I first bought a DSLR, I found that every photo that came out of it, there was nothing to it. I didn't understand how it was made, it just came out. There didn't seem like any opportunity for creativity there. That's when I discovered film photography.
With film photography, I saw the difference in quality between digital and film photos. There was this texture, this beautiful quality to the negative that digital didn't have. I started experimenting with that.
I put the DSLR away and picked up a Lomo camera, a Polaroid SX-70, a Holga, a Mamiya. I ended up taking all of these cameras with me to all of these places as I was touring. It was my way of seeing and documenting these places in a way that, to me, hadn't been done before. Rather than just pick up a camera and take a picture of a place, I was using a specific camera with a specific film and a specific lens, using a specific technique to try and document it in a completely different way.
I really like this idea of the camera being able to reveal so much more about the landscape than the eye can see.
Pamela: What were your pictures like in those days?
Reuben: I did a lot of Polaroid photography. I also learned how to hack these cameras. Because of my background in design,I was interested in how these cameras worked. I was figuring out how to make them do things they weren't designed to do. In that way, I was able to experiment more and more. I found there was a lot of freedom. And there was so much more to picking up a camera and taking a picture. It became like a ritual, it became this real experience. It was almost like there was more of a purpose for me to go to these places.
Pamela: We've talked about this before–you talk about finding this “alchemy”. I love that word when you refer to your photography.
Reuben: I love the idea of being able to reveal something hidden about what I'm photographing–something that the eye doesn't see. At the time, when I was beginning to experiment with film photography and all of these different types of cameras, it became like alchemy. I was trying to reveal something that was just every day, but reveal a magic that only film and only these techniques could bring out. I was doing things like experimenting with expired film, infrared film, using long exposures.
I think the long exposure thing is really interesting because you're basically using the camera just to capture light. You capture more light than the human eye ever could. I really like this idea of the camera being able to reveal so much more about the landscape than the eye can see.
Pamela: This is such an evolution because you talk about picking up photography when you were a touring musician and it was this tour diary. Now we're starting to talk about photography that isn’t about documenting reality, or the journey that you're on. It's something different, about what the eye can't see.
Reuben: I guess my experience on tour started out being 100 percent about performing with the band and being in the band and all of the lifestyle that goes with being in a band. But it started to shift. There was something buried deep inside me that was telling me to get back into visual art stuff.
I want part of my process to speak to that idea of a geologic time scale, rather than a split-second moment in time.
For me, I was using photography as a way to get fulfillment from what I used to do as a drawing person. I was using photography as a creative medium with another element of craft to it. It did become more and more involved and I dedicated more and more of my time to it. So much so that I started to book time off while touring. I'd go to a place a week later or two weeks later and just travel and take pictures and then rejoin the band. Similar to what I was doing with my design job.
Pamela: This is a critical point in your photography. We talk a lot about “the decisive moment” but at this point you've started to create a different space, in how you approach time and scale. It's not about one moment.
Reuben: It's not about a decisive moment. It's a sustained moment in time, it's a totality of events. I think it speaks to what the landscape is a little bit more–-how these places were formed over millions and millions of years. I want part of my process to speak to that idea of a geologic time scale, rather than a split-second moment in time.
Pamela: The resulting pictures–people tend to call them otherworldly or like you're seeing an alien planet. Is this the effect you’re going for?
Reuben: Well, the effect I've been going for is not to show that it's an otherworldly place. I'm trying to show that this is actually our own planet and trying to force people to see it in a different way.
One of my main goals in photography is to show something that might be familiar but under an unfamiliar light. I think that's a huge part of my practice. It does make people look at an image longer. It makes people ask questions about who we are, about where we are, and about time itself. It's quite a huge subject, really.
I think it allows me to really take my time with photography. My personality definitely leans towards working on the craft of photography and being able to take my time. I don't have to set everything up for a split-second moment. I'm in these places and I can spend all night making one photo because I want to.
It's this slight hint of something altered which is interesting and impactful to me: when something subtle is different.
I like the idea of being able to really prepare and really plan and try and experiment with all of these different things. Also, to be very open to serendipity: things that you might not expect that can happen, which might take you into a different and more interesting direction.
Pamela: As you're telling me this, I have this image of you out in the dark, in a huge landscape, and you're essentially creating a world for us to see. You say it takes all night to get one photo like that. It feels a little bit sci-fi, this idea that you're building a world that you see in your mind's eye.
Reuben: I am a sci-fi fan, so I am reliving that childhood passion. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, and 2001, A Space Odyssey are all films that have had a real effect on me. The films which are closer to our world than the films which are in a far-flung galaxy–they vibe with me more because they take place in our world and show the familiar in an unfamiliar light. It's this slight hint of something altered which is interesting and impactful to me: when something subtle is different.
When I'm in these places, it is a playground. I don't feel scared in these spots at all. I feel very at ease. It's one of the few places that I feel that I can do whatever I want to be creative, and to experiment.
One of my main goals in photography is to show something that might be familiar but under an unfamiliar light.
Pamela: Let's talk a little bit about what that looks like when you're out there. You have this film background, but you're also quite known for the technology that you employ in your work: this mix of low fidelity and high fidelity techniques.
Reuben: I think a lot of my work is about the hybrid between old and new. One thing about my film photography was that I was trying to take pictures that didn't and shouldn't really exist. I was playing with these age-old cameras, with this film that was expired, in these crazy places where no one shot that film before. I was interested in the weird impossibility of those images.
I shoot in digital totally now, but I still take that concept of film photography into how I create pictures. I think with my work, I'm always interested in new technology, and what are the different ways that we can use this new technology. Is there a new, different way that we can use it? It's not like trying to invent something completely new, but creating something fresh by combining different things and having fresh ideas about existing things.
Pamela: I see that you've been experimenting with that idea in these [moving] prints that you have made. I don't even quite know what I'm looking at.
Reuben: I love making prints. I spent time about eight years ago learning how to make prints and learning how to edit my work. How to scan negatives, how to mount it, how to frame it, and how to put together an exhibition. Since then, I've been very much a proponent of the print being the best way to view a photograph.
I think a lot of my work is about the hybrid between old and new. One thing about my film photography was that I was trying to take pictures that didn't and shouldn't really exist.
In the past few years, I've been experimenting with more motion work, time-lapse and stop-motion, and obviously, the work I've been doing with aerial lighting using drones. I've been able to evolve that process into a kind of new medium, which is part time-lapse, part stop-motion. It's like a moving photograph. I find that really interesting. These are very short looping videos, which are only about four to eight seconds long. Because of Instagram's looping feature, they just continue to loop perpetually. I find myself just staring at it. It just loops over and over and over again.
I was intrigued by this idea, and also interested in how this can possibly be presented in a physical space, like in a gallery or even your own home. I was thinking of how I can combine what I was doing with prints with a new technology called AR projection mapping. The idea is that part of the video which is not moving is printed, and that is the print. The other part, which is moving, is projected.
There is a projector that projects the moving part onto the physical print itself. What you see is kind of a combination of digital and analog. Obviously, it's not a screen on the wall. It's not using your phone or a tablet to look through. It's like naked eye AR. It's pretty cool to see, actually. I've been experimenting with that. I've been producing these single edition prints, which come with their own projector. Whoever owns that, will own the video piece, but they'll also own the physical piece to have in their home and to have it moving. It's pretty fun.
Pamela: This really comes full circle, in terms of the creative process that you're going through to create the work, and then how the work is seen. For you it’s always been this mix of traditional and experimental, on the edge of an unknown space.
How do you feel about your journey from a touring musician who was just dabbling in photography as a hobby, to today where you're in the eye of the storm, both in this conversation now and pushing out work that no one has seen before?
Reuben: I've always been an outsider. Since I was a kid, being an outsider was kind of essential. I was always there, and I hated being an outsider at first. Then, later on, I learned to embrace it. That's something that I've always kept with me, and I think that is an important part of who I am and what my work is all about.
Creatively, I am the happiest I've ever been–I've found something that I can put everything into. It's not just photography, but it's also music, it's also motion work. I can put all of those different disciplines together into this new medium. I feel that all of the things I've done in the past–design, music, drawing–all of those have aligned together and converged together at this moment. It allows me to make the work that I wouldn't be able to make if I hadn't done any of those.
When people see my work, you're seeing me. You're seeing all the experiences that I've had in the past. All of those make sense in the art that I make.
I don't see this as the end point. I definitely see it as a very, very important moment in my creative arc. I'm still going to keep exploring and keep experimenting with different mediums, who knows what else I'm going to be doing next. It might not even be photography. It is definitely going to be something that is a combination of different things to create something new.
Pamela: That seems like a good pause point for our conversation today. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Reuben: One thing I've been thinking about is that you can say all you like about yourself, you can put as much as you want in your bio, your artist bio, your artist statement. But I feel that when people see my work, there are aspects of my personality in there. When people see my work, you're seeing me. You're seeing all the experiences that I've had in the past. All of those make sense in the art that I make.
Pamela: Thank you, Reuben.
Reuben: Thanks, Pamela.