Frigid Long-Exposure Photography, Lit By The Ubiquitous Emergency Flare

Kevin Cooley’s photos glow with eerie red light shed from the emergency-kit staple.

Military flares–the sort you see near car accidents and after Hurricane Sandy, lighting intersections in blacked-out lower Manhattan–are the basis for photographer Kevin Cooley’s series, Take Refuge.


Cooley, who is based in Los Angeles, is best known for his long-exposure landscape photography and video art. He’s travelled widely for his work (an Arctic Circle Expeditionary Residency took him to Svalbard last year), and Take Refuge grew out of his travels, a slow and steady collection of photographs taken while on location for other projects. “[It’s] is a very deliberate series of photographs, but I didn’t necessarily set out to make the work, which is unusual for me,” he tells Co.Design. “I typically work on a project exclusively for six months to a year and then move on to something else. With Take Refuge, I’ve been slowly adding to the body of work while simultaneously working on other projects with the exception of a few specific trips.”

As a result, the series is a global project, shot in places as disparate as backcountry Oregon, East Williamsburg, and the remote arctic island Spitsbergen. The photos are all slightly different in scope–some of them show tiny figures kneeling over a flare, as if for warmth; others only hint at human life, with an eerie red glow emanating from a cave or snow fort. They are dramatic and sublime, as if the Hudson River School painters moved to Iceland and took up long-exposure photography.

Ten of the images were exhibited at Kopeikin Gallery earlier this year, but by nature of Cooley’s job, Take Refuge continues to grow. He shoots in large format, with a 4×5 camera but recommends not “schlepping” a big camera. “It will destroy your back,” he says. “Invest in something with wheels.” As for the flares, he uses them often in his travels. “It was a kind of natural progression to try using emergency flares,” Cooley explains. In Take Refuge, he uses them to “paint light” into photographs, though the aura of crisis and survival never quite leaves the frame. “They represent distress, yet remain comforting at the same time.”

More of Cooley’s work, including information on an upcoming installation at the Boiler Gallery in Williamsburg, is on his website.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.