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As a child, Cody Cobb was afraid of the dark. Now, he says that sense of anxiety turns to excitement, making him hyperaware of his surroundings. Under the cloak of darkness, long past midnight, he ventures into the wilderness, carrying a UV flashlight to reveal an unseen, hidden world just beyond our imagination. The result is Spectral, a dizzying, preternatural look at the landscapes of the American West. 

Cobb made the images all across the region, touching down in forests in the Pacific Midwest before traveling to the Mojave Desert and Great Basin nestled beside the Sierra Nevada. While the photographs were made in vastly different environments, they seem to belong to the same alien netherworld. One of the reasons is the presence of lichens, strange branch-like organisms that emerge like a silver thread woven throughout the artist’s subconscious. 

“They really seemed to react to the UV light in unique ways, while growing in the most extreme environments, like 13,000 feet up in the White Mountains of California,” Cobb tells me. “I learned that lichens are actually a composite organism with bacteria or algae threaded into strands of fungi in a mutualistic relationship. In a way, they are the main subject of this series.”

Without the presence of other people, Cobb spent hours in these silent landscapes, sweeping a handheld flashlight across nearby surfaces to bring out that eerie luminescence characteristic of certain minerals and organic matter (including the lichens) under UV light. It’s a slow, labor-intensive process. 

“I use a 365nm light because it’s deeper into the UV spectrum and further from visible light, giving stronger fluorescence,” the artist says. “This fluorescence can be pretty faint, so I usually stack multiple exposures with each individual exposure requiring a minute or more.” To allow for those long exposures, he sought out not only dark skies but also windless (or relatively windless) nights, making for particularly surreal working conditions. The lack of sleep made him slip deeper into a dreamlike state. 

At the end of the night, there are no guarantees. “I never really know what’s going to react and fluoresce, there’s always a sense of exploration and experimentation,” Cobb says. “Slowly, I’ve learned what to look for, but it’s still a surprise and always a challenge to try and compose an image around the elements that fluoresce.

“Also, because I’m wearing glasses that protect my eyes from the UV light, I don’t even get to clearly see how these places are transformed until after I finish my exposure and get to see it on the LCD of my camera. I love that this strange phenomenon is best experienced as a photograph.”

The photographs in Spectral might seem like they’re from another world, but, at heart, they’re a love letter to planet Earth. The glimmering lichens, in particular, feel all the more magical when you consider that they currently cover an estimated seven percent of the surface of our globe. Some of them are ancient, having lived for thousands of years. 

But lichens are also vulnerable. According to recent research from the Field Museum in Chicago, they adapt slowly—too slowly to respond to the current rate of temperature changes wrought by climate change. If the trend continues, they will likely vanish from many of the spots where they’re currently found. It’s a sobering fact that imbues Cobb’s photographs with a haunting, ghostly atmosphere.

Because Cobb is collaborating with the natural world, things don’t always go according to plan. But in some cases, they turn out even better than he hoped. He made the first photograph in the Spectral series while standing along a creek in Washington and was stunned by the result. “It was so strange that I didn’t even know what I was looking at,” he remembers. 

For a photographer who’s spent years exploring magical, remote locations, it was a rare feeling. These days, he says, it can feel as though everything and everywhere has already been photographed and seen a thousand times. But the truth is that the wilderness still hides countless mysteries unfathomable to the human mind. We just have to be willing to look for them, learn from them, and do what we can to preserve them for the future. Spectral has reminded the photographer to continue to get outside and explore wild places. 

 “These places are special because they can give you the illusion that you have escaped, even though you’re never more than 22 miles from a road,” the artist says. “These landscapes are where I’m most excited to spend long hours into the night, waving lights at rocks.” Every time, he’s stunned by the silence: “It’s the kind of quiet that makes me aware of my tinnitus.” Sometimes, he worries someone will see him and think he’s lost and signaling for help with his flashlight. In reality, he’s right at home. 

All images © Cody Cobb

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