Books of the Year: Mitch Dobrowner, Eye of the Storms

I wanted an iconic tornado shot. We chased this awhile, and the storm dropped three or four twisters. We were standing in pouring rain, about a mile and a half from this tornado. It was unpredictable, but we knew because of the direction of the wind that it wasn’t going to come toward us. From the rotation in the dirt on the ground, you can see how wide it was at one point. It was gone a minute later. It did damage to one of the homesteads, but I didn’t want to show the destruction -- I just wanted to show the beauty.© Mitch Dobrowner
I saw an image in my head of Shiprock surrounded by a storm, and I was on a mission to capture that particular image. It wasn’t until the next to last day of a two-week trip that I got something I was happy with. It was a cold morning, and a storm was moving over the area. I left my hotel at 4 a.m., and by 6 I got to a location I’d found earlier. The storm was beginning to lift, but I captured the pictures I’d imagined. It was there, waiting in the desert in the snow, that I got to thinking about photographing storms in Tornado Alley.© Mitch Dobrowner
We started the day in Sturgis, South Dakota, and followed a storm across the Badlands to Valentine, Nebraska. We watched the storm change form throughout the day, as it was born and grew -- a giant, living organism. When the storm first started it was somewhat serene. By the time we arrived in Valentine, we were staring into a monster mesocyclone -- 50,000 feet high, rotating in a field with static and 50-mph ground winds. It was overwhelming.© Mitch Dobrowner © Mitch Dobrowner
This is what’s called a mothership supercell. We had chased the storm all day. They form when all the conditions are right: the wind sheer, the humidity, the atmosphere has to bubble to start these things. Sometimes they die really fast, like a newborn, or sometimes they start to mature and get unpredictable, like a teenager. And this one -- let’s say, in the course of a lifespan -- didn’t start to mature until it was in its 40s. All the sudden it took off. Above the horizon you can see the inflow band: air being sucked into the formation. It was rotating like a top.© Mitch Dobrowner
This formation looks almost like an inverted landscape in the sky. Landscapes are actually harder to shoot, to get a good picture. The storms are just phenomenal. You drop in front of one of these things and it’s like they perform. With landscapes, you might travel 1,600 miles, spend two weeks shooting, camping on top of a mesa, and come back with a couple of good shots. They require patience. Shooting storms is a combination of landscape photography, slow and reflective, with the adrenalin of a sports event, where things can change any second.© Mitch Dobrowner
We were watching the storm, and all the sudden it turned extremely violent and came straight toward us. It went from us chasing the storm to the storm chasing us. It started dropping golf-ball sized hail on us -- these are the ones that hurt. I was able to get about six shots off, and then it was, “We gotta get out of here.” Later this picture got published in Audubon magazine, and somehow that magazine made it to Moorcroft to a beauty parlor. And I got an e-mail from a resident who said, “That house in the bottom right is my grandmother’s house.” What a small world. I sent him a couple of prints.© Mitch Dobrowner
In Kansas, we stepped out of the van and this was coming down, and I said, “Roger, is this thing going to come right down on top of us?” But actually, it was starting to die. It was trying desperately to drop a tornado, and you can see how big that tornado would have been, but the bottom half of the formation was dissipating. I showed the picture to one of my friends and she said, “Oh, it looks like the Arm of God.” A perfect name for it. It felt like an arm reaching down from the heavens.© Mitch Dobrowner
It was really interesting because there were two pictures I took at this time. This one, with the rainstorm coming down behind the trees, was looking west. And when I did a 90-degree turn, was the “Mammatus” scene [next image]. So it was the same storm, but two different personalities of it: one dark and menacing, the other soft and surreal.© Mitch Dobrowner
Mammatus clouds -- which means “mammary” or “breast” clouds -- are very distinctive looking. This was the shot I took in the opposite direction of “Trees, Clouds” [previous image]. There had been a kind of violent outburst, and this was the dissipating side of the storm. It was totally surreal.© Mitch Dobrowner
This was toward the end of the day. It’s almost like a monster in the dark. There’s nothing around there, just big skies in South Dakota. And it was getting dark but when this thing would flash, you could see the formation and hear the wind howling. So I was trying to compose the picture, where I thought this cloud formation would be, based on the lightning strikes. And then this strike happened. It’s almost like two fingers pinching and a spark coming down from it. A lot of the lightning stuff happens by luck.© Mitch Dobrowner
Mitch Dobrowner's Storms (Aperture, $50), a collection of vividly dramatic weather images, is one of American Photo's 2013 Books of the Year.

Even when shooting in his adopted city of Los Angeles, photographer Mitch Dobrowner creates ethereal, high-contrast landscapes with a outsize sense of scale and a dramatic interplay between earth and sky. Having established a career running a design studio (and raising a family) with his wife, Dobrowner refocused on his passion for black-and-white photography in 2005, making waves in the fine art world of galleries, limited-edition books and print sales with a series of landscapes and urban vistas (visit mitchdobrowner.com).

Beginning in late 2008, Dobrowner hit the road throughout the Western United States to photograph spectacular weather systems, a project that culminated with Storms_ (Aperture, $50), which_ American Photo_ chose as one of the 2013 Photo Books of the Year. Back home in Studio City, CA, Dobrowner shares his thoughts on shooting natural phenomena, which he likens to portraiture: "Each picture is like a kid to me," he says. "Each one has a distinct personality."_

How did you get into the business of storm-chasing? You write in the book of a pivotal experience shooting in Shiprock, New Mexico.
Well, the "Shiprock" shoot in late 2008 was quite a revelation. But I had always been photographing my Landscape project and my Urban project in inclement weather -- I found it most interesting. So I just said, "I've heard of big storms out in Tornado Alley, so let me go see what it's like." I ended up hooking up with a great storm chaser, Roger Hill, and it was our second day out together, in the summer of 2009, that really got me.

There’s a picture called “Mesocyclone", where we chased a storm from South Dakota through the Badlands and into Nebraska. And we got out and sitting in front of us was this 50,000-foot high mesocyclone rotating in the field, and I just turned to Roger and said, “What the f--- am I looking at?” It was so surreal; the winds were howling at 50 mph. That was the day, that was the storm, that really said this is not an experiment any more: It’s going to turn into a project, something I’m going to want to photograph for a long time.

Roger was the one who knew where to go?
Yeah, he knew what I was looking for. I knew what I wanted to do. But if you want to be a race-car driver, you take lessons and you learn from experts. I wanted to jump-start the project, so I went after the most experienced person I could find to help me. Roger showed me a lot about meteorology, but I like to just concentrate on the photography. With a storm you have to get it to the right place at the right time, and the compositions and the light and the weather conditions are constantly changing, so it's almost like photographing a sporting event. It's like a hybrid between shooting landscapes and sports.

You look at the forming clouds as well as the foreground and the horizon …
What I'm trying to capture is what I feel like when I'm in the face of these phenomena. Just trying to get a sense of scale and beauty. I'm not so much into the destructive aspects. There are great photographers who capture the destruction, but that's just not what I see in these things. I see wonder, and I'm trying to capture the feeling. And these are real images -- they're not manipulated.

But, especially with the tornado shots, there is an element of danger. Do you find yourself having to shoot and run?
You know, that happens. Everybody has their own kind of experience with these things. I don't get scared -- I'm so awestruck and it's such a rush, such an exciting experience for me, that I don't get scared. But there have been times when we'll be chasing a storm and it changes direction and comes straight at us, and there's baseball-sized hail and windows crack and things like that. For me, the whole point is understanding the subject matter. So I think those types of experiences help me photograph storms in a more intimate way. And I don't by accident stand in front of a storm to take a picture. We're there for a reason.

It's deliberate, and you know roughly how long you have …
Yeah, I stay focused on the photography. And Roger helps with that. I hear the wind blowing and I hear lightening strike, and that's a little intense because that's so random, you never know where it's going to hit. But the only thing I really listen for, when I'm photographing, is Roger saying, "Let's get the hell out of here, right now!" [Laughter] And he's already thought about the escape routes.

What do you shoot with? Are these always on a tripod?
I think every frame I've ever shot in my life has been on a tripod. I come from a large-format world, 4x5 and 8x10, but these are all digital. It's much easier to set up a digital camera in front of these things. I actually prefer a live-view point-and-shoot camera, because you see what you get. So instead of shooting through, say, 4x5, where I have a ground glass and it's upside-down backwards and I have a loop on it and a red filter, with live-view I shoot more in monochrome mode, without using a viewfinder. And I worked out a zone system for me that emulates what I'm looking at. I started this project with the Sony [Cyber-shot DSC-] R1, a terrific camera. But I realized that wasn't the tool that was giving me the greatest flexibility out in the field, so I switched to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. I carry a couple of those.

Do you always convert the images to black-and-white?
Well it's an RGB file, and in the end it's RAW. Part of my workflow is just turning off saturation in the RGB file. I see in black-and-white as a photographer. Everything is based on monochromatic tones. I always have -- I haven't printed a frame of color in 25 years. In the film days, you'd just pop in black-and-white film. With the digital cameras, unless you spend a lot of money on a monochrome camera, they're only built for color pictures. So I had to work out a workflow to create black-and-white work without spending $30,000 on a camera. But I'm happy to bring back black-and-white landscape photography. If I can put that back into people's consciousness, it's a worthwhile thing.

You mentioned Ansel Adams as a key inspiration. Are there others?
Minor White also influenced me a lot. With Ansel Adams -- it's a cliché, but true -- it has to do with his compositions, his workflow, the bridge between aesthetics and technology. Minor White had a lot to do with the light -- looking at the light. A long time ago, I assisted Pete Turner and Hashi in New York. Pete taught me to think out of the box. Hashi was more like, think out of the box but you have to have restraint, you have to have a process, you can't just be a wild man. I learned from watching them work.

For the most part, your storm pictures don't have people in them …
When I've had opportunity to show the human element in the environment, I think it's important because it gives you something to relate to. It gives a sense of scale. But my focus is on nature. With the storms, what I feel is that … we're in their world. We built roads and all, but these natural events existed long before we were around. We think they're moving through, but we built things in their way, you know? We live in their world -- it's not that they live in ours.

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