Familiar places in an unfamiliar light: terrestrial chiaroscuro in Reuben Wu’s “Lux Noctis”
In a remarkable video released in December 2011 by researchers at MIT, a single photon is shown passing through the interior of a plastic bottle. The photon moves leisurely, taking its time, traveling from one end of the bottle to the other, never betraying its actual speed of 186,000 miles per second. Captured by a device known as a “streak camera” — one that records scenes at a rate of one trillion exposures every second — the photon appears as nothing more than a single, hovering sphere of light. In a different context, it might pass for an over-lit aircraft, even a shooting star or comet, a luminous orb revealing every granular detail of its surroundings while casting its background into inky obscurity.
The Italian art historical term chiaroscuro refers to the use of deep shadow and precisely directed artificial light in portraying a scene. Originating in the Renaissance and most often associated with oil painting, chiaroscuro is a technique that can bring a great, compressed sense of drama to even the most mundane setting. In chiaroscuro, human figures emerge from impenetrable darkness, their expressions theatrical, all shadow-stretched eye sockets and hardened jawlines. Individual objects appear exaggerated, as if arranged on a stage set, intensified by the depicted glow of a single source of light. Chiaroscuro presents a high-contrast world, one in which the visual effects of MIT’s ghostly photon would not be out of place.
In the early months of 2016, photographer Reuben Wu began documenting remote geological formations in the American Southwest using an unusual lighting technique: a high-powered LED mounted to a drone. This setup allowed Wu to send lighting out into the landscape, illuminating single rock slopes and ridges with unerring precision. The drone, rather than serving as an extension of the photographer’s eye, became instead a part of the landscape being photographed. Dimly illuminated rock forms loom, robots circling them in space like the whirring of a planetary hard drive.
Rich in shadows, the resulting series of photographs, known by the title “Lux Noctis,” suggests an entirely new kind of geological portraiture. Isolated topographic features become spot-lit and removed from their surroundings. The effect can be almost clinical, as if Wu has ventured into these landscapes as part of an unnamed scientific survey, an expedition sent to measure and catalog anomalous planetary landforms. In the process, Wu seems to have revealed a parallel world, one that overlaps with, but is not quite identical to our own. Indeed for Wu, the “Lux Noctis” series works in the service of a larger, more poetic question: “How can I change my own perspective of our planet, and make it new and unexplored?” The result is terrestrial chiaroscuro, a severe and deeply etched exploration of sites where the Earth is at its most unearthly.
One of many astonishing visual effects of the series is that Wu’s outdoor scenes could pass for the interiors of deep caves, so heavy is the darkness he captures. The ink-black sky seen in most of these photos has the effect of ridding each image of scale, making it almost impossible to know what some of them depict. Towering forms could pass for tropical reefs, deep-sea vents, or the fragile mineral pipettes of stalactites. Technicolor cliffs the size of skyscrapers or vast flanks of desert mesas might be nothing more than small rocks illuminated by flashlight. What appears to be the moon might really be the hovering glow of the artist’s drone — or vice versa.
In his biography of Caravaggio (1571-1610), the painter most commonly associated with chiaroscuro’s representational technique, historian Andrew Graham-Dixon draws attention to the artist’s silken blacks and carefully controlled cones of illumination. “Looking at his pictures is like looking at the world by flashes of lightning,” Graham-Dixon writes of Caravaggio’s work. Here, with “Lux Noctis,” Wu shows what it’s like to look at the world by flashes of machines, robots whose flight paths resemble haloes, giving the landscapes a holy feel — mineral giants, angels frozen in stone — as if beatified by light.
For historian A. Roger Ekirch, the metaphors we use for describing night can be inaccurate, even misleading. In his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, Ekirch suggests that the concept of nightfall, for example, implies that night comes from above and descends upon us, whereas, he writes, night is something more infernal. Night comes from below. “Rather than falling, night, to the watchful eye, rises,” Ekirch explains. “Emerging first in the valleys, shadows slowly ascend sloping hillsides,” like a dark tide stirring amongst forest roots. Night pulls itself over the daytime world like a cape; it is an obscurity that blankets and overwhelms. Night is a terrestrial thing.
The images in “Lux Noctis” appear to support Ekirch’s observation. A creeping darkness at the edges of things threatens to reabsorb the monumental figures in Wu’s work. These peaks, ridges, and pillars are there for us to see — but only briefly. Machines, sent forth to help record these obscure landscapes, futilely push back against the benthic gloom that continues its rise against the light. After all, inevitably Wu’s drone will return to him, its LED extinguished; Wu himself will pack up his gear and hike to the next topographic feature; and these immense fragments of an alternative Earth will disappear back into the rising night from which they came, as if some colossal shutter has snapped closed.
Geoff Manaugh a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, covering topics related to cities, design, crime, infrastructure, technology, and more for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Guardian, New Scientist, Cabinet Magazine, The Daily Beast, Wired, Wired UK, and many other publications. He is the co-author, with journalist Nicola Twilley, of Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine (2021, MCD Books), and A Burglar’s Guide to the City (2016, FSG Originals), on the relationship between crime and architecture.
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