Aug. 3 2016 11:46 AM

Photographer Jena McShane gets her kicks chasing tornados and rock stars

Jena McShane's "zombie pinups," like this one featuring Sierra MAtthews, helped the photographer establish herself in the Lansing scene.
Photo by McShane Photography
Most days, the subjects in front of Jena McShane’s camera are what you would expect for a professional photographer — newborn babies, blushing brides, beloved pets and the like. But for the past three summers, McShane has traveled to the Great Plains to train her viewfinder on a more dangerous subject — tornados.

“I grew up in Missouri and Kansas; it’s in my blood,” she said. “I used to sit on the porch with my dad and watch the storms roll in.”

McShane, this week’s Summer of Art artist, wanted to try storm chasing for years, but commercial storm chasing tours can cost thousands of dollars, even before you factor in airfare and accommodations. In 2012, a friend introduced McShane to someone who works for the National Weather Service and was looking for photographers. She accompanied him the next summer and was instantly hooked.

“There’s always a level of fear,” she said, “but it’s like riding a rollercoaster. You don’t ride a rollercoaster to be safe; you do it for the thrill of it.”

McShane’s storm chasing trips have taken her to Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Kansas. Tornados are classified using the Fujita Scale, which measures the level of destruction caused by the storm. The scale ranges from F1 (weak) to F5 (incredible). The most destructive tornado McShane has photographed was an F4, which is powerful enough to collapse brick buildings and destroy most wooden structures. On another trip, she was able to stand just 200 yards away from a slow moving tornado.

“That was the most panicked I’ve ever been,” she said.

McShane, 35, was raised on a dairy farm in Springfield, Mo., but her family moved to Manhattan, Kan., and Madison, Wis., while her father pursued graduate degrees at Kansas State University and the University of Wisconsin. When he landed a job at Michigan State University in 1996, the family moved to Okemos, just in time for McShane’s freshman year at Okemos High School.

McShane went on to get a degree in photography from Lansing Community College in 2010, where she worked with local photographer and longtime LCC instructor Roxanne Frith.

“I always give Roxanne a lot of credit,” McShane said. “She taught a visual literacy course. It was the only course where we weren’t behind a camera or in front of a computer monitor. The projects she assigned opened my mind to a different way of thinking.”

After graduating from LCC, McShane started her own business, McShane Photography, and started to build enough support to do photography full time. She used Facebook to market her work and got a lot of local attention for a series of provocative “zombie pinups.” These photos featured men and women in pinup style clothing and poses but with faces and bodies covered in zombie make-up and fake scars. The project, launched just as the nation was becoming obsessed with zombie stories like AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and feature films like “Resident Evil” and “World War Z,” helped McShane set herself apart from other photographers in the area.

Aside from storm chasing adventures and pinup projects, McShane shoots about 20 weddings per year, as well as family portraits, baby photos and other photography staples. But she has also found time to pursue another love: live concert photography.

The highlight of McShane’s concert photography came into 2012 when she was able to photograph her favorite band, Rush. She wasn’t working for any publications at the time, but she called in some favors and was able to score a press pass.

Jena McShane, seen here taking a selfie with a tornado, has spent the last three summers chasing storms on the Great Plains.
Photo by McShane Photography

“That was when I was going through my divorce,” she said. “It was a bright spot in a really hard time.”

McShane’s live concert photos regularly appear on National Rock Review, an online network of music photographers and reviewers. She has photographed Alice Cooper and Heart, among others, and has a bucket list of mostly ‘80s metal bands she is still hoping to capture on film.

“Iron Maiden for sure, and Van Halen would be great too,” she said. “There’s a bunch.”

As for storm chasing, McShane expects that to be part of her portfolio for years to come.

“I’m going to keep doing it as long as my mom doesn’t freak out too much,” she joked. “It’s something I’ll always be obsessed with.”