©Thomas Jackson

Coloring the Coast

Shivering tulle looks like plumes of tinted smoke in Thomas Jackson’s ephemeral photographs, staged on windy West Coast beaches in the soft light of dusk.

Why tulle: “Of all the materials I’ve worked with over the years, it is the most versatile and mutable,” Jackson says. “Depending on how it’s arranged and how the wind and light hit it, tulle can transform from a solid to a liquid, from smoke to fire to fog."

Setting the scene: Between the setup and the photography, the process takes six to 12 hours. “Some of the tulle pieces are supported by networks of wires, others are suspended from monofilaments attached to off-camera support structures I construct,” he explains. Pre-pandemic, Jackson used bulky tripods as off-camera support for the wires, but he had to hire extra help to carry them. During the pandemic he used the driftwood that was already on the beach. “Buried in the sand and staked down with ropes, spars of driftwood served the same purpose as those heavy stands, and the installations became more responsive and intrinsic to their environments in the process."

©Thomas Jackson

What makes tulle look like smoke: “I don’t create the effect, the wind does,” says Jackson. “I simply suspend and arrange the tulle, and the elements do the rest. Most of the exposures are between one and two seconds, so you’re seeing a series of moments instead of a single, decisive one. Tulle is already an ephemeral material, but when photographed in the wind with a long exposure it loses all of its edges and becomes something new."

Selecting locations: Jackson prefers a background that rolls off into the distance, where the sun sinks into the horizon instead of behind a hill or mountain. Other factors are the wind and tides. “I’m particularly drawn to shooting on beaches. I love their minimalism and the way shifting weather and atmospheric conditions make them feel different and new from one day to the next."

©Thomas Jackson

Equipment: He shoots 4x5 film with a Shen Hao view camera. “I come to each shoot with just 10 sheets of 4x5 film, which forces me to be particularly deliberate and thoughtful about the choices I make, which hopefully comes across in the final images. I’m also one of those Luddites who still thinks that film looks better than digital. It’s a quaint opinion, I know, but I’m sticking to it."

Failure rate: On each shoot, a number of factors need to align perfectly: wind speed, tide (which could wash away some installations), and lighting conditions. “Of the 20 shoots I did in 2020, 13 were failures, sometimes because of mistakes I made, but usually because one or more of those variables didn’t break the way I needed them to."

Triumphs: “My primary goal with each image is to create something I’ve never seen before. I feel like I accomplished that more than once in this series, which is a good feeling.” 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor.