Swarms you've never seen before

Story highlights

  • Thomas Jackson has staged everyday objects to look like swarms in nature
  • Among the items used: Solo cups, Post-it notes, cheese balls and plastic plates

(CNN)A swarm of insects tends to startle us -- chaotic yet organized, fascinating and beautiful.

Take it one step further. Instead of bees hovering around a tree, imagine cheese balls. Solo cups in the place of birds, glow sticks as locusts. What seems like a figment of a wild imagination becomes reality in Thomas Jackson's "Emergent Behavior" series.
Jackson grew up in Rhode Island and worked in publishing in New York for 13 years, ultimately landing his dream gig as an editor with Forbes magazine. But somewhere along the way, he picked up a camera.
    He found photography "effortlessly fulfilling" compared to the frequent challenges of writing. So he dove in, lens first.
    Photographer Thomas Jackson
    After a charming series featuring a robot, he struck a cadence in creating "swarms" with inanimate objects such as Post-it notes and plastic plates.
    "I started creating these whimsical, fantastic scenarios in which the environment is exploiting us," Jackson explained.
    That's what initially catches the eye -- the uncanny. The bizarre gathering in the behavior of insects or birds, made up of something that shouldn't be there.
    At first, he relied on digital enhancements to polish his illusions. But as the series evolved, he relied less on editing and more on the installations themselves. More than half of Jackson's "Emergent Behavior" series is digitally untouched.
    How Jackson gets a tubful of cheese balls to hang purposefully around the trunk of a tree seems nonsensical. He only hints at the mechanics. It's just "wires," he said, casually, not revealing enough evidence to ruin the magic.

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    "But if you look close enough, it will reveal all of its secrets."
    He spends about a day building the installations, and he usually shoots his photos at dusk.
    The photo of the pink Solo cups was shot against mountainous terrain in Wyoming. The cups, already at odds with nature, look as though they are a flock of birds flying along the rocks. Jackson seemingly casts a magic spell of manic movement, creating what an Internet commentator calls "a frat party being sucked into a black hole."
    The idea of a swarm -- be it insects or "thank you" bags -- fascinates Jackson. They are disconcerting and familiar at once, creating a conundrum that warrants a closer look.
    "Maybe because they fly in the face of how we see the world," he said.