Michael Muller was the first to wade into the cage. He adjusted his wet suit before descending 120 feet below the surface as the sun rose over the Guadalupe Islands.

“Out of the darkness came that shark. It swam by me and I locked eyes with it,” Muller tells TIME. “All of the misconceptions, the fear melted away. I saw an animal that was not the monster I was programmed to think it was.”

The shark diving experience, a gift from his wife in 2006, would be the first of many for Muller, who has built up one of the most spectacular portfolios of underwater shark photography.

Muller started shooting in his early teens. Famed for his portraits of the world’s most elite actors, musicians, and sports stars, he crossed paths with celebrities like David Arquette, Drew Barrymore and Leonardo Dicaprio. He went on to shoot for TIME, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, and has shot the movie posters for all of the Marvel movies. But he was interested in something even more wild than Rihanna or Ant-Man.

From black tip and sand tiger sharks in South Africa to great hammerheads in the Bahamas, the first-known photograph of a great white breaching at night to nuanced moments like scuffles over food, he captures the beauty and might of the shark.

Shooting with a patented seven-bulb, 1200-watt plexi-encased strobe lighting rig developed with NASA engineering, and without a cage, Muller brings an up-close Hollywood portrait sensibility to these primitive creatures.

Muller shooting with his assistant Leland Hayward in Fiji, May 2011 (Coutesy Keith J. Leman)
Muller shooting with his assistant Leland Hayward in Fiji, May 2011
Coutesy Keith J. Leman

His aim is to change the perceptions perpetuated by movies like Jaws and increase awareness of the 100 million sharks killed every year. His book, Sharks published by Taschen, does not shy away from images of sharks killed by the dozen to meet growing tourist demands across Asia and South America. Muller advocates awareness in hope that demand changes. “If people aren’t asking for sharks in soup,” he says, “Fishermen aren’t killing as many sharks.”

“We’re all in our urban areas and aren’t in touch with nature like we used to be,” Muller adds. “I saw it firsthand and it makes me want to scream to people, tell them that we are losing the most beautiful part of our planet.”

Michael Muller is a photographer based in Los Angeles. His book, Sharks, is available now and published by Taschen.

Rachel Lowry is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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