While on a trip to East Java in Indonesia this past July, Chicago-based photographer, music producer, and filmmaker Reuben Wu (of Ladytron fame) captured the otherworldly sight of electric blue molten sulphur gushing from fumaroles (hot gas vents in the earth's crust) in the base of the Blue Fire Crater at the Kawah Ijen volcano. While the spectacular natural phenomenon has occurred for a long time, in recent years, the crater has become a popular destination for tourists, who embark on midnight hikes to get a glimpse of the the burning chemical that normally appears red during the day. Wu, an avid adventurer, waited for the tourists to leave so he could take these amazing shots of an alien landscape lit by the pale glow of the sapphire-colored flames spewing forth like neon lava.
The journey into the Ijen volcano complex is physically challenging, involving a two-hour hike to reach the rim of the crater, followed by a 45-minute hike down to the bank. Temperatures of the toxic sulphuric gas can reach up to 600 degrees Celcius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit), and can flare up as blue flames more than 5 meters high upon contact with the air. Called “Blue Fire” by locals, the dangerous site is the largest blue flame area in the world.
We had the chance to ask Wu a few questions about his incredible experience. Scroll down to read that exclusive interview.
Can you tell us more about your trip to East Java this past July?
I had been to Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia) three times before in my previous guise as a musician in my band Ladytron, so I knew from early on about the volcanoes of East Java, but never had the chance to travel to see them. Finally, this year I was able to book a 3-week trip to tour various places in the region, and I made sure that I had a few days in the Mount Ijen area as well as the Bromo Tengger Caldera a few hours to the west. I also made sure that my trip coincided with the full moon so that any night photos would be illuminated to some degree.
Can you describe your experience photographing molten sulphur spewing from fumaroles at Kawah Ijen in the dead of night?
The crater is actually a very well-populated tourist spot. Thousands of visitors in organised groups climb the volcano at 3am to see the blue fire, and the whole place can be very congested as tourists descend and sulphur miners ascend narrow trails.
I decided to wait for everyone to leave in order for me to photograph the place better. For me, the experience of a place is dulled by crowds, and I much prefer to see them when deserted. When I was there at sunset and onwards, I had the place to myself, and I was able to take photographs in my own time under moonlight.
The sulphur streams are actually very close to the fumaroles, so most of the time, I was enveloped in a cloud of sulphur dioxide. It's necessary to wear googles and a respirator because breathing in the toxic gases can damage your lungs and burn your eyes, plus it's difficult to see what you're doing in the gas, and composing a photograph and focusing your camera is really hard.
At times like these, staying focused on being creative is not exactly easy, but for me, it is the experience of being there which is the main attraction.
What drove you to seek out these otherworldly images?
I’ve been obsessed by volcanoes since I was a child. There is something sublime about the power of eruptions and their influence on our ‘normal' environment. The effect they have on the landscape, on close-by settlements, and on the weather, for instance. I love the fact that they are nexuses of creation and destruction.
The rest of Wu's images of East Java are equally stunning.
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Reuben Wu.