In 2017, the La Tuna fire nearly destroyed multimedia artist Kevin Cooley’s Los Angeles home. Cooley has long used controlled flame to produce his artwork, but even a close call with personal immolation wasn’t enough to extinguish his interest in the subject. “Fire is something we control to basically make our world operate,” Cooley says, citing the fire we use to cook our food, heat our homes, and drive our cars (thanks, internal combustion!). Along with the invention of language, Charles Darwin considered our mastery of fire to be humanity’s most significant achievement.

For his latest series, Cooley continued his exploration of fire by photographing explosions up close. Working with a professional pyrotechnist, Cooley staged small, controlled chemical reactions at several undisclosed—but safe, he insists—outdoor locations. For each explosion, the pyrotechnist produced a custom thermite mix from his extensive chemical library, wrapped it in nitrocellulose (flash paper), suspended it from a wire, and lit the fuse. Meanwhile, Cooley programed his digital camera to snap away at shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000th of a second.

“You have to catch the explosion at the right moment,” Cooley says. “I have plenty of photographs that are just white. There are lots of takes for every good one.” Each blast was created from as little as four grams of chemical powder, including magnesium, aluminum, copper oxide, titanium, charcoal, and zinc. Cooley and the pyrotechnist, who prefers to remain anonymous, created different types and colors of explosions by experimenting with different recipes. Adding a tiny amount of titanium to a mix of copper oxide and aluminum, for instance, added a beautiful white edging to one explosion. A viewer told Cooley it looked like the Death Star exploding. In the future, the photographer plans to test out more exotic thermites like bismuth trioxide and manganese dioxide.

Cooley emphasizes that the blasts were small and controlled. “They’re more akin to fireworks than TNT,” he says. “I’m not making pipe bombs.” Still, it’s a fittingly apocalyptic subject for the contemporary moment. Our mastery of fire created human civilization, but could also destroy it—whether through nuclear war or the unchecked burning of fossil fuels. We long ago learned how to control fire; the challenge today is how to control ourselves.

More Great WIRED Stories