Photographer Kevin Cooley isn’t afraid of the dark. In fact, he’s almost like a cat, using the cover of darkness as his opportunity to go out and hunt – for pictures. He’s known for using the night sky like a giant canvass and a plethora of manmade light sources like paintbrushes to create stunning fine art and editorial imagery.
Cooley has used everything from the light of jet engines flying thousands of feet above his lens to flares shot into the depths of cold wintry landscapes to expose his photographs. His inventive techniques and striking aesthetic have brought him much success in the art world. In the past few years he’s landed multiple grants, artist residencies, solo exhibitions, major awards and scores of magazine clients.
We recently had a chance to sit down and discuss his career and craft. Our interview begins with the concept and creation of our featured image “Badlands 2,” a photo from his series At Light’s Edge. We continue on to discuss how Cooley conceptualizes projects, where he finds creative inspiration and his path of becoming a successful artist.
Cooley: This image was created before dawn on a cold, snowy morning near the small town of Lyman in Southwestern Wyoming. To create the streak in the sky, I used an old military flare. After a long period of failed experimentation with model rockets, fireworks, and marine flares, I settled on military flares for two reasons. They are very bright and enjoy a nice long hang-time in the air of around 8-10 seconds. Second, I really liked their predictable trajectories, something which I wasn’t getting with the other methods I tested. The flares are all from various militaries in Eastern Europe and date from the late 1970’s and 80’s. I was surprised to find hardly any duds in the entire gross I used for this project.
Seckler: What was the technical process of creating this image?
Cooley: The camera I used is a Linhof Technikardan 45s with a 135mm Schneider apo-symmar lens. I remember that at the time, I thought I was shooting with Kodak Portra 160VC at an exposure of four or five minutes at f22. However, when I got back to the hotel, I realized that I accidentally shot Kodak Portra 400NC. I think this mistake worked out to my advantage in making the flare even brighter. I only had time to shoot 2 frames before I was visited by a state trooper who wanted to know why my car was stopped along the side of the highway so early in the morning. Luckily for me, it did not seem as he had seen two flares we had already shot off. But I thought it best not to take any more chances.
Seckler: Where did you come of with the idea for this series?
Cooley: From an emotional point of view, the series is about feeling lost in my environment and struggling to cope with the human condition. It’s also about feeling like the world can get the best of you and being lonely; it’s very existential. Loneliness is a theme I’ve been exploring for a long time. I often photograph alone; it’s a meditative experience for me. Mentally, I go to strange, sometimes subliminal, places. I guess it says a lot about me as a person, but it also speaks to the universal human condition. We all have to deal with the harshness of the world. Speaking from a literal point of view, the light from the flares is like a distress signal, a call for help, like you’re lost in a stark, unforgiving landscape. I shot those images mostly in Wyoming and Idaho during the depths of winter.
Seckler: Is there a metaphorical element to it?
Cooley: When you look at the pictures, you see a white streak and you might not necessarily know what’s going on. Is the flare coming up, or is it going down? Is it from outer space? Is it lightning? You know, I like to leave the images open to interpretation. I purposefully chose not to use red distress flares to make it more ambiguous.
Seckler: Much of your work is done at night using only ambient light, where did this habit originate from?
Cooley: The very first project I did at night was a series called Night for Night, which is an industry term. It started when I came across an amazing-looking film set in Red Hook, Brooklyn. They were shooting A Beautiful Mind, and there was a gigantic oil tanker that was lit up. They weren’t even shooting the tanker; it was only a part of the background. I started to think about how light is used in film, and how much of it is not used, and what else is being lit on set. That thread sparked the idea that I should surreptitiously borrow hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide (HMI) lights from different films sets. Before I knew it, I was in Los Angeles for six months following various film productions.
Seckler: Did people ever wonder why you were stalking around film sets?
Cooley: Film crews in New York got to know me well. They offered me craft services, asked me if I was getting what I needed. I almost felt like a part of the productions. In Los Angeles, my reception was less well received. Even though I was blocks away from the set, and not interested in whomever was being shot—meaning that I was clearly not a paparazzo—I was not treated well. Sometimes, the cops that are paid to be on set would get involved. They’d say, “You know, actually, he can shoot here. It’s totally fine. He’s not even bothering the crew.”
Cooley: Each project has been shot at night, but each one also uses a slightly different light source, the first one being the big film HMIs. Next, I did a project in Paris, France, during a six-month artist-in-residency program, where I used the lights from Bateaux-Mouches, tourist boats that travel along the Seine.
Seckler: Is your choice of lighting a matter of convenience or aesthetics?
Cooley: When I first started the Night for Night series I was looking for locations that were lit by massive lights, and I was thinking, what would I do if I had those lights for myself? And I realized that I didn’t know what I would do. It was more about seeking what was lit; the accidental occurrence of the experience intrigued me. When I photograph, I always feel most comfortable reacting to what I see, rather than setting up my own scenario.
Seckler: What originally prompted your interest in photography?
Cooley: I came to New York to go to the School for Visual Arts (SVA) in 1997. But I was shooting before that. Television has always been a major part of my upbringing. My family had televisions in almost every room. My father couldn’t sleep without a television playing. My mom slept in a different room, and she had a television. I had television in my bedroom when I was a kid. Television imagery is how I learned about the world. I think that it’s only natural that I became interested in capturing the world visually.
Cooley: In my second year of grad school we had a photographer join us who was a well-connected commercial, editorial photographer in Australia. Before I met him I was thinking only about being an artist. He introduced me to commercial photography. Since graduate school I’ve been trying to navigate between being an editorial photographer, a commercial photographer, and a fine artist. The first few years after I graduated I assisted and then I started doing my own projects, mainly the Night for Night series.
Seckler: Tell me about your work as an editorial and commercial photographer.
Cooley: There are aspects I like about editorial and commercial photography, but I don’t see how I could fully commit to either. I like making personal work, because I do whatever I want, and I can take as much time as I need. But I also like getting an assignment to go somewhere. I love traveling. I love having to go somewhere to find a picture where there’s not an obvious picture—like having the situation be pressured. I appreciate the challenge of representing a story or an editorial point of view.
Seckler: How do you split yourself mentally between commercial or editorial projects and fine art?
Cooley: I used to think I could do it all. I thought, I could go somewhere and shoot an editorial portrait in the morning, and then shoot something different in the afternoon and just always have a zillion ideas, but the more refined I got at doing what I wanted to do, the more distracted I felt. I find it really hard to turn one off or turn one on, to immediately switch.
Seckler: Tell me about how you conceptualize an idea for a series.
Cooley: It happens organically. I often go for long periods where I have no ideas. Once I start working on a series I eventually get to a point where I feel like I’ve got it, maybe after 15 or 20 pictures. I probably could push it, shoot for another year or so, but then I lose interest. I also go through short periods where I don’t shoot as much or I try things that don’t work and then I see something that suddenly sparks a new idea.
Seckler: It sounds like a very organic, even serendipitous process.
Cooley: I wish I could sit down with pieces of paper and access what I need, and that process is probably not any easier than what I do, but I certainly like to fantasize about it being easier. I’m not good at brainstorming. I mostly hunt for what I shoot. Last summer I started thinking about fireflies as a light source. I didn’t know how to get a bunch of them together, but I started looking into it and realized that there are fireflies in Cambodia that sync up and flash at the same time. I thought, that could be an idea. At the same time my wife found this place in Vieques, Puerto Rico, that has dinoflagellates in the water that light up at night when you move, so I’m going there to photograph them.
Seckler: When you have an idea, like using fireflies as a light source, are you thinking only about something that interests you personally, or are you thinking about an audience that may or may not like the work?
Cooley: I think about making a visually dynamic photograph. I want my work to end up in a gallery or be presented in a magazine, but I try not to work with those goals as my motivation. Where the work ends up, or if it goes anywhere, is not as important.
Seckler: In terms of making a living as a fine artist, is it difficult to rely on galleries to sell your work?
Cooley: My gallery closed in December, so it’s hard. I don’t have gallery representation right now. I don’t think anything in photography is necessarily reliable; it’s all a challenge.
Seckler: How did you get your first solo show?
Cooley: Artist Jen DeNike approached me to be in a group show. About a year later I showed the gallerist some new work and he absolutely hated it and told me if I wanted to be in the art world I should be more consistent. Then he called me on the following Monday and offered me a show. I was shocked. I said, “Really? I thought you hated the work.” And he replied, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, so I guess I couldn’t hate it that much.” He had such a reaction to it that he spent the whole weekend thinking about it. I guess he felt if it captured his attention, then there must be something there.
Seckler: Is there an overarching theme in your work?
Cooley: The work is an extension of me, of my life, and my perception of the world. I think the world is a lonely, harsh, yet beautiful place, and one full of dualities, inconsistencies, and disasters. But in all of that, there’s beauty that I want to capture.
Seckler: Let’s discuss your motion work. Tell me about those projects.
Cooley: During my airplane series, I spent hours sitting near airports, watching planes take off, listening to birds chirp, watching boats go by, and I always felt like the photographs that represented that time didn’t fully reveal the experience of actually being there, which compelled me to shoot video. In a video you could get closer to the nature, especially near JFK, where there are waterways. There are birds flying, fish jumping, and it’s calm and serene. Then you suddenly hear a roaring jet come through and destroy everything. And then it goes away, and you’re back to nature. By using video I could definitely make my audience understand that there is nature, there is a human-made airplane, and noise. I ended up doing a bunch of videos, some in the same locations as the photographs, and I think they worked very well together.
Cooley: I showed them at my last gallery show. I think it only made it more dynamic to have both video and photography; it enabled a richer dialog. I feel like video has long been important in the art world, even though it seems like commercial and editorial photographers are just now starting to fully explore HD video.
Seckler: What’s next for you?
Cooley: I’m doing this project in Puerto Rico and then doing something with bioluminescence, with fireflies. I have no idea if it’s going to work; it could be a total failure. Next, I want to go out West and drive around, which really inspires me. In 2011, I plan to sublet my apartment, get a camper, and go away for six months and drive around North America. But while I’m still in New York, I want to do a project about fires. There was a seven-alarm fire in Chinatown several weeks ago, and it got me thinking, so I bought a police scanner and I’ve been listening to it, hoping to find some good stuff.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Joann Jovinelly
This piece was originally published 6/1/10 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.