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With striking images, this photographer is illuminating our relationship with the planet

By Michelle Cohan, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) — Fire has played a crucial role in humanity for millennia. It’s allowed us to cook, construct, and keep warm. But this essential element is also the cause of major destruction — as witnessed by the increase in wildfires all over the world, which the UN Environment Program attributes to climate change.

One witness — and documenter — of this trend is Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Kevin Cooley, who has spent the last decade capturing images of fire — both wild and controlled.

“I photograph these sort of disasters and I try to make them almost beautiful,” said Cooley, “but that’s how you can bring attention to them.”

Cooley’s work aims to highlight our relationship with the environment as well as the effects of climate change. He’s photographed the wildfires right outside his doorstep in California that nearly took his home, a wastewater spill in Colorado, and the declining water reservoirs in Arizona.

“It’s nature, we’re not in control of it as much as we like to think that we are,” he said, adding that he hopes his work can “help us think more about its power, its beauty and how we can respect it.”

Cooley largely focuses on the elements — earth, wind, water and fire — that he enhances with a light source that he either actively introduces himself, or passively introduces through objects like airplanes flying through the sky, he said.

Light, he believes, brings a certain importance to the banality of objects and situations, “highlighting things that would otherwise go unnoticed in everyday life,” he added.

Capturing the power of nature

“I’ve been working with light for the past 25 years in a variety of ways,” Cooley said, including the use of lasers, flashlights, fireworks, old flashbulbs, flares, and even smoke plumes.

In his photo series “Controlled Burns,” Cooley used strobe lights to freeze the movement of pyrotechnic smoke and turn it into menacing sculptures, he said. The photographs are a visual statement about “our desire to control nature.”

But lately, Cooley finds himself drawn to a different element, with lower risks.

“In 2021, at the Caldor Fire [in California], I had a very harrowing experience and I kind of decided that maybe I shouldn’t be photographing fire so much and it was getting a little taxing, just always being around the smoke,” he explained. At the same time, California was in the middle of an extreme drought, which sparked his interesting in photographing water.

Using flashlights, strobe lights and even drones, Cooley takes long exposure photos of the ocean that illuminate the tides, and ebb and flow of the current, he said.

“I recently read that two-thirds of California beaches are going to disappear, and that’s part of the reason why I am wanting to do this project about the waves,” he said, “to bring attention to that.”

Cooley sees the ocean as an ally in the fight against climate change – citing its power as a carbon sink and source of energy that can come from waves.

“We have to kind of harness (nature) in a way that we can find a nice balance between what we need as humans and also what the planet can tolerate,” he said, “to ensure that there will be a space left for the future generations.”

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