Flocks of birds. Swarming locusts. Schools of fish. Such self-organizing behavior in nature tends to evoke both fear and fascination, emotions that photographer Thomas Jackson taps into with his beautifully surreal series Emergent Behavior.

Cups no. 2, Saratoga, Wyoming, 2013 | (Thomas Jackson)

Inspired by the creatures and critters that gather and swarm en masse, Jackson creates intricate, hovering installations in breathtaking settings, from California to New York. Working with unnatural and often surprising materials, from plastic cups and tutus to hula hoops and junk food, Jackson arranges the items on location, modeling their mob-like behaviors after those found in nature.

Cheese Balls, Nananoch, New York, 2012 | (Thomas Jackson)

Tutus no. 1, Montara, California, 2015 | (Thomas Jackson)

Jackson's images may appear Photoshopped, but they are as real as the sandy, rocky, and lush landscapes they are built upon. Though the artist won't divulge his process, he said it took him about a year of trial and error to figure out how to technically and seamlessly create the installations without any digital intervention.

"I realized [this] would add a new layer of intrigue to the work and perhaps add something to the ongoing conversation about authenticity in photography, and whether it matters at all, particularly in our digital age," Jackson said in an interview.

"Creating images that appear 'fake' at first glance — but are in fact 'real' — is my mischievous little contribution to the debate."

The series is ongoing, which means Jackson is constantly innovating his technique to fit the material or the location. In striving to capture "an image that feels simultaneously discordant and harmonious,” he imaginatively inserts bursts of color, whimsy, and mystery into the natural world, challenging viewers to look a little closer and figure out his tricks.

Straws no. 3, San Francisco, California, 2015 | (Thomas Jackson)

Hula Hoops no. 1, Lee Vining, California, 2015 | (Thomas Jackson)

Cups no. 3, Novato, California, 2014 | (Thomas Jackson)

**Thomas Jackson's Emergent Behavior will be on view this November at the Miller Yezerski Gallery in Boston. To see more of his work, check out his website and Instagram.**