It's not entirely accurate to say that Thomas Shahan won't hurt a fly, but it's not far off.
The 22-year-old Tulsan, currently living in Norman and studying art at the University of Oklahoma, shoots extreme close-up photographs of insects and spiders. Sometimes he uses himself as bait.
“Deer flies, which are a close relative of horseflies, won't give up,” he said recently. “If they can tell you're hot and sweaty, they'll chase you and will sink their proboscis into you. I've had blood dripping down my legs from them, but I don't want to hurt them.
“It's a good chance for me to shoot them. If they're feeding on me, they're not going anywhere.”
The results are worth a little blood loss. His images have been seen in Popular Photography, Discover and publications in Brazil, India, China, the Netherlands and Mexico. He has sold photographs to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for use in scientific texts, and last year, Target sold puzzles bearing images he shot.
“I thought it was an odd choice,” he said of the puzzles. “Do you really want to make a puzzle for kids with a jumping spider or a wasp? The wasp one was a glow-in-the-dark puzzle, a big glowing wasp.”
Shahan works with a basic Pentax digital camera and old Japanese prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length, unlike zoom lenses. He uses a reversing adapter ring to mount a lens backward on extension tubes, creating an effect like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; instead of getting bigger, everything gets smaller. Light comes from a makeshift diffuser.
The way he has his camera set up means that his field of vision is a darkened area no more than 2 or 3 centimeters. Getting one usable photo may take hours spent in uncomfortable positions and hundreds of tries; he doesn't really know what he's got until he goes back through every image.
Sometimes he'll find a single perfect photo. Other times he'll focus-stack three to five photographs taken from the same angle, combining the best portions of each of the photos.
The results are transformative. Insects and spiders most people would kill on sight become vivid, lively characters. Through Shahan's magic, a minuscule jumping spider turns into a colorful natural wonder, striped yellow legs, blue body and all. Horseflies look fluffy and cool, insect aviators, their banded eyes like mirrored sunglasses.
But Shahan isn't after art. He just wants people to love spiders and insects as much as he does.
“There may be something on an evolutionary scale that makes people afraid of spiders, the way they move and the places they choose to occupy,” he said. “I was never repulsed by them. It has turned into a deep reverence for me. I just hope my photographs communicate my respect and reverence for arthropods. They should be admired.”
Part of that reverence includes humane treatment of his subjects. Shahan doesn't shoot dead insects or refrigerate bugs to slow their movements, as some insect photographers do. He likes to shoot them in their habitats; he may lift a leaf into the air to photograph its insect passenger against a brighter background, but he'll return the leaf to its original position when he's done.
His favorite subjects are jumping spiders, which have great eyesight and rarely stand still.
“They have learning abilities and pathfinding abilities,” he said. “If you move your finger, they'll follow it like a little dog. And they have wild courtship rituals.”
Shahan didn't get involved in photography until he entered high school, when he created a website to catalog his guitar collection. Eventually he acquired his digital SLR.
He'd never taken an art photography class, but he knew he didn't want to shoot pictures of his friends or buildings. He connected his camera to a telescope and shot images of the moon and various nebulae before reading about macro photography, which involves shooting close-ups of small objects.
Once he'd acquired his reversal rings and extension tubes, he went to work in his backyard, blowing up small aspects of the natural world to see details he'd never noticed before. He has continued ever since, refining his techniques and capturing images that impress longtime professional photographers.
“Man-made objects have limitations,” he said. “You have to turn to nature to find truly beautiful things.”