Among the Waves: Kevin Cooley in Conversation 

Kevin Cooley has spent more than two decades exploring humanity’s relationship with the five classical elements – earth, air, fire, water and aether. His newest series, Pacific Ocean Blue, examines the ocean as both a formidable natural force, and an untapped ally in our struggle against climate change. In some images, powerful breaking waves appear sculptural and manufactured, isolated from their surroundings and frozen in time. In others, the hidden ebbs and flows of the tide come alive with soft, ethereal motion. We spoke to Kevin about how he produced his newest series and what inspires his photography.

A: Can you tell us where the idea for Pacific Ocean Blue came from? You’ve said it began after you took up wild swimming due to a back condition. Was there a moment when you knew this was the direction you wanted to take, and how did it evolve from there?
KC: Due to an enduring spinal issue, I can’t travel as much. I was accustomed to always going to far off places, so I needed to find a way to work closer to home. Less dangerous than chasing wildfires, looking to the ocean made sense practically and conceptually to continue my focus on the environment. I started photographing from the shore, but I wanted more from the work I was producing. I would show up early, swim for an hour, and then focus on shooting. This ritual allowed me to integrate my physical challenges with my artistic concerns. I asked myself the question, ‘what if, instead of lighting from ashore, I brought the light into the water with me as I swam?’. That was the moment it all came together.

A: The collection takes its name from Dennis Wilson’s 1977 album. Does music inspire you creatively? Has it influenced any of your other projects?
KC: Yes, music inspires me. In Pacific Ocean Blue, both the music and his life equally inspired my project. I know the album well, but it makes sense on a whole other level after spending so much time swimming in the same waters that inspired him. Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who surfed and the only one who died in the water. I feel that heaviness when I hear his music and work on this project. I collaborated with Phillip Andrew Lewis and we listened to a lot of John Maus in the studio. Many of our projects were inspired by listening to and then creating a work explicitly about one of his songs. 

A: Could you tell us more about the process of photographing the ocean? What does a day on a shoot look like?
KC: This project has had a lot of trial and error, with many more errors than I typically expect. I’ve found the most success working with strobes, as opposed to the continuous light of my high-powered flashlights that I always like to use. Besides expensive ones designed for underwater diving, which aren’t bright enough for me, photo strobes are hardly water resistant, let alone waterproof.  Much of my trial and error has been to keep my strobes working. I swim out into the ocean, attach them to rocks in the surf, and while I haven’t lost any yet, I’ve broken several, leading me down a long path to using old-school flash bulbs. After months of tinkering, I’ve built a functional remote trigger. This summer, I will use a drone to fly the flash bulb into the surf. This way, I can stay on the beach, avoid swimming in dangerous waters, and not worry about destroying expensive equipment. We’ll see how it goes.

A: Your work has long focused on humanity’s contemporary relationship with the elements – from snow-capped mountains in At Light’s Edge to wildfires with Still Burning. How has your view of this changed over the past two decades? 
KC: When I first started, I was living in New York City, and it was all about exploring the unknown, often traveling to the “ends of the earth” – faraway places like Nunavik or Spitzbergen. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2012, the landscapes I wanted to capture were much closer, and my work had a more ominous tone as a result. I made projects about running out of fresh water or the La Tuna wildfire coming within yards of destroying my house, studio, and photographic archive. Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed that my work has become more optimistic. I seek to highlight solutions to climate change rather than aestheticising it. Even though climate denialism seems to have become mainstream, at least in the United States, everyone is aware of the issues we face. Now is the time to foster positive change.

A: You frame the ocean as both friend and foe when it comes to the climate crisis. Please tell us more about that duality. 
KC: Natural disasters, like rising sea levels and more severe and frequent storms pose significant challenges in many low-lying places worldwide, which is terrible. At the same time, the ocean is essential to the fight against climate change. It produces half of the world’s oxygen and captures a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions. It is the most significant carbon sink on the planet. We have an opportunity to keep the ocean healthy and insulate ourselves against the worst impacts of climate change.

A: Where do you see the place of artists in the fight against climate change? Is there anyone working in this space right now whom you particularly admire?
KC: Artists have a vital role in advancing action against climate change. We can envision a future and share our perspectives in provocative ways that can profoundly influence policy and cultural norms. I admire several artists working in this space, including Lauren Bon, Olafur Eliasson, and Jeff Frost. There are also naturally occurring events that feel like readymade environmental art, and we’re seeing these happen more often. An example I can’t get out of my head is these videos of vacation houses setting sail into the ocean from Rodanthe, North Carolina, as the beach around them crumbles into the sea. 

A: What do you want people to take away after viewing the collection? 
KC: When people see this work, I want them to think about all their experiences staring into the ocean, contemplating how small they feel against the backdrop of the giant ocean. Like Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, I want them to think about the human capacity for perseverance, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, and to see the ocean as a source of motivation and hope.

A: What’s next? Are you working on anything new right now?
Besides continuing to work on Pacific Ocean Blue, I am working on a series of sculpture-generating vessels that harness non-toxic exothermic reactions to produce temporary foam sculptures. I can then photograph these in the landscape. I have a solo exhibition coming up at the Jones Institute in San Francisco this August, which is really exciting. I am also publishing my first photo book this autumn with The Eriskay Connection, The Wizard of Awe, which is about an eccentric pyrotechnist and the fine art photographs of smoke and explosions I’ve made under his guidance. It should be a blast! 

Image Credits:
1. Kevin Cooley, from Pacific Ocean Blue.
2. Kevin Cooley, from Pacific Ocean Blue.
3. Kevin Cooley, Wind River Canyon Wyoming, 2009. Chromogenic print, singular edition of 7+1ap, 30×38.5 & 48.5×60”. Courtesy of the artist and Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles.
4. Kevin Cooley, Madison River, Montana, 2009. Chromogenic print singular edition of 7+1ap, 30×38.5 & 48.5×60”. Courtesy of the artist and Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles.
5. Kevin Cooley, Badlands I South Pass, Wyoming, 2009. Chromogenic print, singular edition of 7+1ap. 30×38.5 & 48.5×60”.
6. Kevin Cooley, Down the street from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Los Angeles.