Reuben Wu, a British photographer and visual artist based in Chicago, was introduced for the first time National Geographic like most people: as a child he liked to look at the magazines to which his father had subscribed for decades.
He dreamed of having his photos in the same magazine – and even on the cover. When then National Geographic asked him to photograph an iconic monument he knows well, he was willing to work.
Last summer, Wu witnessed a stark contrast between modernity and prehistory when he used drones and artificial light to photograph Stonehenge, one of the most well-known prehistoric monuments, while listening to passing cars honk their horns. The site in Wiltshire, England, is bisected by the A303 – a major road that could soon run in a tunnel should a 2020 proposal become a reality – meaning motorists could have seen Wu’s photoshoot and lit-up drones.
Wu says he is grateful National Geographic Photo editors made the connection between his composite work and new research — thanks to modern technology — about Stonehenge after he spoke at Storytellers Summit 2020. The annual conference is held at National Geographic The headquarters brings together photographers, writers, filmmakers and journalists to celebrate storytelling.
We spoke to Wu about his first cover—National Geographic‘s August issue—which he says still hasn’t arrived.
What’s the story behind the cover?
Stonehenge is an iconic archaeological site; The stone circle has stood on Salisbury Plain, just 90 miles southwest of London, for more than 4,500 years. The prehistoric monument’s mysterious past has inspired a number of theories about its formation. Over the centuries, millions of travelers have been drawn to this site annually, and the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset attract thousands.
There’s a strong association with Stonehenge because it’s a household name, Wu says, especially for those in Britain who take school trips there, as Wu himself did growing up in England.
“Of course, you can go and visit it later, and it can take on a different meaning as you get older,” says Wu. “You’ve seen so many pictures of it that it just seems normal.”
He says this project provided an opportunity to make the monument look exceptional by capturing images that truly reflect Stonehenge’s timelessness.
Photographing this landmark presented new challenges, particularly the use of drone pilots, who are not normally allowed at Stonehenge without complicated permits, and the task of showing such a familiar place through a new lens. Wu says there were several hurdles to jump through, including the UK’s notoriously unpredictable weather, a drone audit in the UK and obtaining prior permission from English Heritage, which maintains Stonehenge, and the Royal Air Force if the drone is to be used was started.
The drone also couldn’t be flown directly over the rocks, so Wu had to improvise. He attached a Bluetooth-powered LED light to the top of a 50-foot telescoping pole, which his assistant held over the stones to illuminate them. To ensure the moon is not too bright and interferes with the drone lights, the timing of the trip and photoshoot focused on the lunar cycle and the hope of clear skies.
Wu’s intention behind his photography is to make people think differently about something or a place and to evoke new perceptions through his work.
“A lot of my work is based around this idea of showing the familiar in an unfamiliar light,” he says.
Using artificial light in natural settings helps, Wu says. “There’s this flashy landscape where you wouldn’t expect that kind of lighting, and it’s showing you something that you might have seen in a completely different light every day.”
He wanted to reinvent the classic Stonehenge landscape photograph and force the viewer to really think about the magnificent structure. He argues that because it’s so familiar to most people, they tend to dismiss it as something ordinary.
Wu hopes his photography will give readers a new perspective on Stonehenge.
What’s on the cover?
Wu created his composition – multiple images captured during an evening at Stonehenge – using both a very small drone and a wand to precisely illuminate the stones. Wu usually either pilots the drones himself or works closely with an assistant to maintain control of the lighting.
Wu approached the photo shoot with a few things already set: he wanted to achieve a symmetrical portrait composition that would fit perfectly on the cover; he had to conquer all well-lit stones; and the sunset had to be in the background. The result is a “really beautiful pairing of the colors of the sunset combined with the otherworldly coloring of the stones themselves,” says Wu.
Ultimately, the composition he envisioned on the cover, which took the most time to get just right, ended up on the cover.
It took about three hours to shoot the cover photo, starting at sunset so Wu could capture the fading light, and through the night. Some might think it’s too difficult to take a landscape photo when the natural light is fading, but Wu prides himself on capturing a place in perfect light angles.
“Conventionally you might wait for a sunset or a really perfect angle of the sun to capture something at its best, but for me I try to actually create the perfect angle of light using the drone,” says Wu.
His lighting techniques are inspired by the chiaroscuro in painting, which uses strong contrasts between light and dark.
Shortly after the photoshoot, Wu stumbled across an article featuring images of Stonehenge heavily lit by Harold Edgerton, a famous photographer known for projects like the still of a sphere going through an apple.
Edgerton had been asked by the British military after World War II to experiment with aerial reconnaissance at night. In one of his images, he lit Stonehenge from above by strapping a high-powered flash or flashgun to the bottom of a bomber and flying over the stones – eerily similar to Wu’s drone techniques.
Wu says he was startled: “It felt like a ghost was patting me on the shoulder.”
He felt that conversations between photographers and artists had been going on for generations without them knowing.
“It makes me think that whatever you do, no matter how new you think it’s possible, you always have to be aware that there’s someone who could have done it in the past.”
What’s next for Reuben Wu?
Wu says his year has been filled with a lot of travel and one of his upcoming projects will include even more.
“It’s kind of a perfect pastime to travel and take pictures.”