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Interview & Portfolio: Thomas Jackson's Emergent Behavior

photo-eye Gallery Portfolio & Interview: Thomas Jackson's Emergent Behavior Opening on May 29th at photo-eye Gallery is an exhibition of Thomas Jackson's large scale colorful images from his series Emergent Behavior. In this series man made objects assemble in powerful masses, taking on a life of their own as they co-exist with nature.
Lusty Wives Vol. #81, 2015 — Thomas Jackson

Inspired by Thomas Jackson's images, I now have a reoccurring daydream where post-its and a few other office supplies take flight from my desk, swarming in a powerful and rhythmic performance. Opening on May 29th, photo-eye Gallery is excited to host an exhibition of Jackson's large scale colorful images from his series Emergent Behavior. In this series man made objects assemble in powerful masses, taking on a life of their own as they co-exist with nature. To make these images, Jackson first imagines the composition and then constructs large suspended kinetic sculptures from colorful everyday objects, which are photographed, finally resulting in a still image. In anticipation of this exhibition, I've asked Jackson to share some insight on how his project came to be, his inspiration and creative process.—Anne Kelly

Party Streamers no.1, 2015 — Thomas Jackson

Anne Kelly:     As I understand it, your interest in photography spawned from your days as a editor and book reviewer for magazines. Can you tell us more about this progression?

Thomas Jackson:     I was actually quite passionate about photography as a teenager and as a young adult. At 15, my Pentax K1000 was among my most prized possessions, and the photography classes I took in high school and college stand out today as bright spots in my otherwise checkered academic life. But being an artist never occurred to me as a career choice. I wanted to be a writer and an editor, and I pursued that goal throughout my 20s and most of my 30s, first in book publishing, then at a New York-based lifestyle magazine, where among other things I was assigned to write and edit a book review section. All manner of photobooks hit my desk, and little by little my dormant passion for photography was reawakened. Andrew Moore’s Russia was a big eye-opener, as were Gregory Crewdson’s Beneath the Roses and Richard Misrach’s On the Beach. I was particularly delighted by Aperture’s volume of Teun Hocks' work. His brand of thoughtful absurdity — reminiscent of literary heroes of mine like James Thurber, Evelyn Waugh and Joseph Mitchell — helped set the tone for the work I do today. Before long I’d picked up a camera again and started a string of classes at the International Center of Photography, and when the magazine job went south I didn’t have to think hard about what to do next.

The Robot Series handmade artist book by Thomas Jackson
AK:      Please tell us about your previous work, The Robot Series, and the book you created for it. How did you transition from that work into Emergent Behavior?

TJ:     That body of work began as a simple narrative about a solitary old robot struggling to keep nature from encroaching on his little clearing in the woods. I cobbled him together from salvage-yard scrap, old photo gear and various items from the hardware store; his head was a recessed lighting fixture, his feet surveillance camera housings, and the circuit boards on his chest the innards of a busted VCR. I made a number of images of this character as he tried fruitlessly to mow, haul and hack the forest into submission. But things morphed as I got deeper into the project. I began making large, floating sculptures from sticks, leaves, fluorescent lights, firecrackers and other materials, and unleashing them on my hapless protagonist, setting off a cascade of escalating confrontations culminating in the robot's demise (or his resurrection, depending on how you look at it). It took me a long time to realize that above all, these images wanted to be a book. Not a standard, 4-color photobook, but a hand-made object that was a product of the slightly creepy, retro-futuristic world the robot inhabited. With piano hinges as bindings, the book's front and back covers are made from sheet metal and wood salvaged from an abandoned chicken coop. It features a flashing red light, an antenna, a collection of sketches and of course the photographs themselves. I set out to make an edition of 11, but the production was so time-consuming I flamed out at 5.

from The Robot Series

AK:      The images in Emergent Behavior are created by building large scale, kinetic mobiles and then photographing them in a specific environment — and some, if not all, start as drawings. How did you settle on this elaborate working process?

sketches by Thomas Jackson
TJ:     My current working process was born from The Robot Series, which was shot on a piece of property I used to own in the Catskill mountains. Up there I could do all manner of inadvisable things without asking anyone's permission. I could suspend objects from trees, dig holes, light stuff on fire, set off pyrotechnics and otherwise experiment freely on a grand scale. By the time Emergent Behavior was underway, which I'd decided to shoot in more varied landscapes, I had developed a system that is more or less unchanged today. The difference now is that most of the shoots I do are on public land where a permit is required, which has forced me to become more of a planner than I'm generally inclined to be. I will indeed make sketches, and if possible I'll visit a location multiple times before the day of a shoot. Often I'll construct parts of the sculpture in my studio beforehand. But no matter how much I think things through in advance, this is fundamentally an improvisational process, shaped by unforeseen weather conditions and my own capricious nature.

Tutus no.1, 2015 — Thomas Jackson

 AK:      Please discuss your use — or lack of use — of Photoshop.

TJ:     Throughout The Robot Series and in the early stages of Emergent Behavior I used Photoshop quite liberally. If one of my installations wasn't as big as I wanted it to be, I could clone it and double its size without leaving my chair. If there were elements I found distracting — stands, support lines, etc. — I could simply remove them. I even went through a brief period of photographing objects against a green screen in a studio and stripping them into a landscape en masse. With these tools at my disposal I felt that there was nothing I couldn't create, and I found that to be... paralyzing. So I placed a set of constraints on myself — no compositing, no cloning, no erasing — which I've more or less adhered to ever since, with a few minor relapses here and there. (Once an addict always and addict.) My little inside joke is that I still want my images to look like digital composites, or at least suspiciously so. In the Photoshop age, you can never quite tell what's real and what isn't, and I'm more than happy to contribute to the confusion.

Broken Pallet, 2011 — Thomas Jackson

AK:      You began the Emergent Behavior series when you were living in New York City . At the time, the images depicted swarms of natural items in a city setting, and since then the images transitioned to groups of disposable man made materials in a natural setting. What inspired this change?

TJ:     My original idea for the series was not swarms at all, but to build and photograph sculptures made from stuff I found lying on the ground in both urban and natural locations. It was about reconstituting detritus into something magical and extraordinary. Broken Pallet, shot in Red Hook, Brooklyn, was a product of this line of thinking, as was the fall foliage installation in Leaves no. 1. But I quickly realized that I could only get so far with cigarette butts, crushed Coke cans, and the sticks and leaves I'd find in the forest. I felt stuck for a little while, but after staring at both images for way too long I saw what I hadn't noticed before: they were swarms. After that I made a few images depicting plant matter swarming in urban environments, but the approach that really seemed to click was to do the inverse: man-made objects in nature. The juxtapositions came across more dramatically in those settings. And on a practical level, building large-scale installations is a lot easier in the country than it is in town.

Post-its no.1, 2012 — Thomas Jackson
AK:      A few of your influences include schooling fish, murmurs of birds and data swarms ( did I make up the data swarm?). Who or what else would you credit as inspirations?

TJ:     Nowadays I'm thinking less about swarms in particular, and more about other animating forces of nature. Gravity and dark matter are of particular interest to me at the moment. And yes, data swarms are on the docket as well. I'm always looking for new ideas, from the micro-biological level to the cosmos.

AK:      Most of the man made items in your images are considered to be disposable, but the more that I think about it, a great percentage of man made items are these days. Is this a statement that you are addressing?

TJ:     Absolutely. I am explicitly making fun of us humans for the embarrassingly vulgar crap with which we surround ourselves. And by doing do, I hope to illustrate the depth of our estrangement from the natural world. At the same time I'm keenly interested in the mutability of things. Wrenched from its usual context, a plastic cup or a cheeseball can take on new meaning. Place it in a lush, organic environment, multiply it by a hundred or so and it can even become... beautiful.

Thomas Jackson, Tutus no. 3, 2017
AK:      Your sculptural elements must be very time-consuming to construct, and because they are all in public places I would guess that you must have had some strange encounters in the process.

TJ:     I try to avoid people if I can, but I've had some colorful animal encounters out there. While making Plates no. 3 in the woods of upstate New York a flying squirrel whizzed by my head, then threw me a nasty look from a nearby tree trunk. I think he was annoyed by the weird sculpture clogging his airspace. And while setting up Tutus no. 1 on a beach in Pacifica, California, a pod of gray whales swam by, shockingly close to shore. For a panicked moment I thought I was about witness one of those mysterious beach strandings you hear about on the news, which would have scuttled my photo shoot entirely, but the whales continued on their way and disappeared.

Garden Hose No.1, 2012 — Thomas Jackson

View Thomas Jackson's Emergent Behavior portfolio

For more information, and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505.988.5152 ext 121 or