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Reuben Wu, a British photographer and visual artist based in Chicago, was first introduced to National Geographic as most people are: When he was a child, he enjoyed looking at the magazines his father subscribed to for decades.
He dreamed of seeing his photographs in the same magazine—and even on the cover. So when National Geographic asked him to photograph an iconic monument he knows well, he was ready to work.
Last summer, Wu experienced a stark contrast of modern and prehistoric, as he used drones and artificial light to photograph Stonehenge, one of the best-known prehistoric monuments, while hearing honking cars passing by. The site in Wiltshire, England, is bisected by the A303—a major road that may soon be in a tunnel should a 2020 proposal become reality—which means motorists may have seen Wu’s photo shoot and lit-up drones.
Wu says he’s 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 the 2020 Storytellers Summit. The annual convention hosted at National Geographic 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 sunk in.
What’s the story behind the cover?
Stonehenge is an iconic archaeological site; the stone circle has stood for more than 4,500 years on Salisbury Plain, just 90 miles southwest of London. The prehistoric monument’s mysterious past has inspired a number of theories on its creation. Throughout the ages millions of travelers have been attracted to the site annually, and the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset draw thousands.
There is a strong attachment to Stonehenge because it’s a household name, Wu says, especially for those in the U.K. who take school field trips there, as Wu himself did growing up in England.
“You can obviously go and visit later, and it can take on a different meaning as you grow up,” Wu says. “You’ve seen so many pictures of it that it just seems ordinary.”
He says this project presented an opportunity to make the monument look extraordinary by capturing pictures that really speak to the timelessness of Stonehenge.
Photographing this landmark presented new challenges, especially the use of drone piloting, which is typically not allowed at Stonehenge without complicated approvals, and the task of showing such a familiar site through a new lens. Wu says there were several hoops to jump through, including the infamously unpredictable U.K. weather, a U.K. drone exam, and calling ahead for permission from English Heritage, which maintains Stonehenge, and from the Royal Air Force every time the drone was launched.
The drone also could not be flown directly above the stones, so Wu had to improvise. He attached a Bluetooth-operated LED light to the top of a 50-foot telescopic pole, which his assistant held above the stones to light them. To ensure the moon wouldn’t be too bright and interfere with the drone lighting, the timing of the trip and photo shoot centered on the moon cycle and hopes of cloudless skies.
Wu’s intention behind his photography is to make people think about a thing or place in a different way and draw out new perceptions through his work.
“A lot of the work that I do is based on this idea of showing the familiar in unfamiliar light,” he says.
The use of artificial light in natural environments helps, Wu says. “There’s this jarring landscape where you wouldn’t expect that kind of lighting to be, and it shows you something which you may have seen every day in a completely different light.”
He wanted to reimagine the classic landscape photograph of Stonehenge and force viewers to really think about the grand structure. He argues that since it’s so familiar to most people, they tend to dismiss it as something ordinary.
Wu hopes readers are able to take away a renewed perception of Stonehenge through his photography.
What’s featured on the cover?
Wu created his composition—multiple images taken throughout an evening at Stonehenge—by using both a very small drone and a pole to light the stones in a precise way. Wu typically either controls the drones himself or works closely with an assistant, to maintain control over the lighting.
Wu approached the photo shoot with a few things already determined in his mind: He wanted to achieve a symmetrical composition in a portrait orientation to fit perfectly on the cover; he had to capture all of the stones lit well; and the sunset needed to be in the background. The result is a “really nice pairing of the colors of the sunset combined with the otherworldly coloring of the stones themselves,” Wu says.
Ultimately, the composition that he envisioned on the cover, and spent the most time getting just right, ended up on the cover.
The cover image took about three hours to photograph, starting when the sun was setting so Wu could capture the fading light, and through the night. Some may think taking a landscape photograph when natural light is fading may be too difficult, but Wu prides himself on capturing a place in perfect angles of light.
“Perhaps more conventionally, you’d be waiting for a sunset, or a really kind of perfect angle of light by the sun, in order to capture something in its best light, but for me, I’m trying to actually create this perfect angle of light by using the drone,” Wu says.
His lighting techniques are inspired by chiaroscuro in painting, which uses bold contrasts between light and dark.
A bit after the photo shoot, Wu stumbled across an article featuring images of Stonehenge starkly lit by Harold Edgerton, a famous photographer known for projects like a freeze-frame of a bullet 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 illuminated Stonehenge from above by strapping a high-power strobe, or flash gun, to the bottom of a bomber and flying it over the stones—eerily similar to Wu’s drone techniques.
Wu says he was spooked: “It felt like I was being tapped on the shoulder by a ghost.”
He felt that conversations were happening between photographers and artists over generations without their knowing it.
“It makes me think that whatever you do, however new you think it might be, always be aware there’s someone who could’ve done it in the past.”
What’s next for Reuben Wu?
Wu says that his year has been filled with lots of travel, and one of his upcoming projects will feature even more.
“It’s kind of a perfect pastime, traveling and taking pictures.”