Seeing differently

Photographer Thomas Jackson says he found using Photoshop unsatisfying, like eating “a cookie for lunch.” Today he mimics the computer effects to provide new perspective. August Howell / Review

In the twilight on a crisp Monday at Montara State Beach, Thomas Jackson worked intently with his camera, surrounded by an array of poles, lighting equipment and monofilament fishing lines.

Jackson, a Marin-based artist and photographer, enjoys working in the Coastside’s scenic settings, particularly the beaches from Montara through Pescadero. His most recent body of work involves imitating and resembling what he identifies as “emergent behavior.”

He uses the term to describe anything in the natural world that gathers at a moment’s notice, be it a school of fish or a flock of birds. To get a better understanding, visit his website,

Jackson was born in Philadelphia and raised in Providence, R.I. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Wooster, he worked in New York as an editor and book reviewer for magazines before pursuing photography. Since 2012, Jackson has been featured in dozens of publications, from the New Yorker to Wired and the Huffington Post.

Since moving to the West Coast in 2013, much of his work has become landscape-driven. At first, Jackson’s “emergent behavior” made use of what most assume his work is at first glance — high-quality Photoshop computer manipulation. But after getting tired of the cloning tool, a simple yet intriguing idea took Jackson away from the computer.

“For a while I thought that’s what I could actually do,” Jackson recalled. “But it never felt satisfying. It was like eating a cookie for lunch. It didn’t feel like a full meal.

“And then a friend made an offhand comment. ‘It would be cool if it were totally real,’” he remembers. “And that just made a fire inside my head.”

Using the monofilament, Jackson seemingly suspends objects in the air, making the inanimate feel alive. Inspired by the installation work of Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude, it took Jackson a few years to nail the technique. He described it as a series of trials and errors, but it drove him to be better.

Jackson says the work is physically demanding to bring and set up all the equipment, and there are a multitude of variables. The light, wind, tide, even people and their dogs come into play. It takes days to plan, and hours to perfect.

His pieces capture multiple themes. The objects he uses, from plastic bags to Solo cups, both imitate nature and juxtapose it. It’s the type of work that demands closer inspection and gives the viewer a fresh perspective. Some images are aesthetically pleasing and disconcerting at the same time. It also suggests an environmental perspective.

“I think we tend to see ourselves as separate from nature, but that’s foolish because we are inextricably intertwined,” he said. “There’s no way we can survive if we don’t find some way to get equilibrium. And I see my pieces as an attempt to take something that doesn’t seem to belong in a natural world and try to make it fit it and come into equilibrium with that landscape.”

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