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“The storms and landscapes here on earth deserve our respect and admiration”, says California based landscape photographer Mitch Dobrowner. Having been gifted an Argus rangefinder in his late teens by his father, he was inspired by some of America’s legendary photographers. At 21, he quit his job to explore the Southwest of the USA with his camera. Since 2005, he’s been touring the country to capture some extreme weather phenomena.
As I write this article, my brother has been unable to fly out of the USA due to the impact of Hurricane Henri. Some of the images and videos he sends to me (while in the safety of his home) are alarming. Luckily, the town on the east coast that he’s in isn’t facing the full impact of the hurricane. Nevertheless, the rains that are battering down in his vicinity are quite unlike anything he’s experienced before. Yet none of those scenes that he’s shared with me come close to the ones that Mitch has photographed over the years. While he doesn’t like to be bracketed as a storm photographer alone, his images of storms are striking, to say the least.
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The Essential Photo Gear Used by Mitch Dobrowner
Mitch told us:
Because my life in Los Angeles can be a bit complicated at times I try to keep things simple when it comes to my art. I currently shoot with 2x Canon camera bodies. I rely on the camera’s Live View as it acts in a similar fashion to the way I used to use the ground glass on my 4×5 and 8×10 cameras. I use only 2 lenses, 24-70mm and 70-200mm L series lenses. I realize, with a zoom, that I may be giving up bit in sharpness but these lenses give me the freedom to compose on the fly — which is a priority to me. And my tripod; I’m not sure I’ve ever shot a frame in my life without a tripod. The only other item is my beanie. It keeps the hair out of my eyes and I use it to keep the rain off the cameras and lenses.
The Phoblographer: Hi Mitch. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Mitch Dobrowner: The first time I picked up a camera, I was 17; I quickly became addicted. As I was searching for who I was and what photography was all about, I eventually stumbled onto the images of both Ansel Adams and Minor White. They were the ones that inspired me in my late teens. I had never been exposed to photographic images such as theirs before then. The first time I saw their work, I was floored. It was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It may sound a bit cliche, but the images left a major mark on my life. Their work was mind-boggling to me.
Ansel was all about light, composition, making order out of disorder, being in touch with the environment while addressing all the technical aspects of photography. Ansel’s books The Camera, The Print and The Negative became my bibles. And even today, when I look at a great Ansel Adams print or book, my world turns upside down. I owe much to these great photographers of the past, especially Ansel Adams, for their dedication to the craft. Their dedication, determination, craftsmanship, and vision still inspire me. Though I have never met them, they helped me determine the course my life would take.
The Phoblographer: Would you call yourself a storm chaser? How thrilling is it to look up and chase storms for that perfect image?
Mitch Dobrowner: No, besides, I don’t like to put things in boxes. I’m just a landscape photographer. For my Storm project, I work with a gentleman, friend and soulmate named Roger Hill. Roger is the most experienced storm chaser on the planet. Over the past 12 years, I’ve traveled over 200,000 miles with Roger and his tour teams. He knows me, knows what I’m looking for, and that just allows me to be myself.
Watching Mother Nature in some of her finest moments has been a truly surreal experience.
The Phoblographer: Of course there’s also a great deal of danger involved. Bravado can’t always save someone, so what safety measures do you employ to ensure you’re safe outdoors? When does fear kick in on location (if at all)?
Mitch Dobrowner: I think this is an important question, only because I’d like to change that narrative a bit. I don’t think making a spectacle of what it takes to create the images is important. What’s important are the images themselves. Photography is my personal art form, and the images speak more about me and the subject matter than I can ever describe in words. The pictures truly do evoke what I feel on the inside about our planet. The storms and landscapes here on earth deserve our respect and admiration. This is what I feel as I stand in front of them; their stature and prominence overwhelm and amaze me.
I’m just trying to capture them in a manner that does justice to them. Telling the story about how they were captured as “dramatic and scary” can de-emphasize what the images are really about. I know people want to hear how dangerous it can be, but the truth is, this is something that I love doing. The images themselves evoke what I’m trying to say. But to answer your question, honestly, the only thing that scares me when I’m out photographing storm systems is seeing a wild mouse in the fields. I hate rodents… they scare the hell out of me.
The Phoblographer: Has a storm ever chased you back? Any memorable close calls?
Mitch Dobrowner: Yea – there is one storm that comes to mind. It’s the storm I’ve named “Bear’s Claw”. We started tracking it in South Dakota. We had chased the storm for three or four hours, waiting for something to happen. Eventually, we ended up in Moorcroft, Wyoming, where we stopped in a field outside town. We sat there for about ten minutes when right in front of our eyes, the storm crossed over the hills and turned straight towards us. At that time, we realized it was an extremely violent hail storm traveling at about 50 to 60 mph straight at us, dropping golf ball-sized hailstones. We had to get out of its way quickly, and I had just enough time to get off about 7 shots before I picked up my tripod and ran towards the van.
If you look at the image, you can see the ground is a little blurred. This is because of the 50+ mph winds we were standing in. The situation had quickly changed from us chasing the storm to the storm chasing us. We eventually got out of its way, but sadly the storm did major damage to the small town of Moorcroft.
The Phoblographer: I don’t think I’ve seen a colour image of a storm on your profile. Do they not look and feel as dramatic in colour? Please explain the appeal of black and white over colour.
Mitch Dobrowner: It’s pretty simple: B&W interprets reality in a way that I “see” as a photographer. My wife (who is a designer and painter) always teases me and says I’m color blind. But I’m not – I just know the names of all the colors. How do you describe terracotta if you don’t know the name of that color? And the only time I see in color is when I’m listening to music. I see music/orchestrations in their various tones. Not sure why… but it’s what I see. Color work also seems too realistic and ‘every day’ to me. It’s what I see every time I look around, so it’s boring to me. I also get bombarded with color imagery, whether it’s over the Internet, on TV, billboards, movies, magazines, etc. I’m pretty visual, so most of it just leads to sensory overload. So I decided to leave color photography to the great color photographers out there.
The Phoblographer: What’s been the most amazing formation you’ve seen? Tell us about how you captured that image.
Mitch Dobrowner: That would have to be the image “Shiprock Storm,” It was shot in the Navajo Nation near Farmington, New Mexico. I just remember planning the trip for a few months and eventually taking my family to Farmington, New Mexico, for 10 days. After being out there for eight days, getting a lot of good images but not what I wanted or envisioned, I woke up at four in the morning on the ninth day. It was freezing, as it was the end of December. I got in my truck and started driving out to the location, which was about 50 miles away. I was in the rain, and snow, and sleet, and in the dark, and I was like, ‘You’re an idiot. What are you doing?’ I had to drive 50 miles, and it was like, ‘You’re not gonna get anything. You could be sleeping in a warm bed and relaxing. What are you doing?’ But when I finally got out to the location, there it was…. a lowering cloud was covering the entire structure of Shiprock. I was like, “This is it.” I just stood out there in ankle-deep mud and snow for like, four hours. And as the cloud lifted, the light was perfect. It was the image I had envisioned in my mind months earlier when I started to plan the trip. It is an important image to me as it proved to me that if I was tenacious, believed in myself and didn’t give up, I could accomplish whatever I envision.
The Phoblographer: Without touching on actual figures, would you say that storm photography is monetarily supportive?
Mitch Dobrowner: As I’ve always seen my final product being the print, I count myself very, very lucky to be represented by 6+ wonderful fine art galleries internationally. That collectors have seen my work as collectible, it’s humbling. And besides, monetarily, I love the gallery people I work with – most of them I’ve been with for over 10 years, so they’re family to me. I know how lucky I am.
The changes in our society and its outlook towards today’s art and contemporary artists… the effect that all the imagery and information accessible to us can be overwhelming. But ART represents a quiet place, a place that can inspire and allow people to get back in touch with themselves and their priorities. Art has an intrinsic value and, as with music, is a staple and foundational piece of society that has been a part of us since the beginning of mankind. It’s important that art continues to evolve and inspire; So again, I know how lucky I am and feel honored, humbled and very fortunate to even be classified as an artist today.
The Phoblographer: You’ve been a photographer for many decades now. How has the move from film to digital changed your approach to storm photography?
Mitch Dobrowner: I come from a film, wet darkroom background. The Ansel Adam’s books. The Camera, The Negative and The Print were my bibles. I see the time I spent in sensitometry in my late teens as vital. It gave me a perspective on film where I wasn’t intimidated by it because I knew all about it. I knew how it was made; I knew the science behind it. So when I began shooting again in 2005/2006, I had that same mentality in regards to digital technologies; taking cameras apart, exploring sensors, learning how and why the filters were combined as they were, etc. It’s allowed me to develop my own type of digital zone system.
Today my cameras act as only an extension of my mind, eye and hands. I don’t think about them much… only as a tool, as a painter would see his/her paintbrush. And digital printing is truly an art. From my perspective, producing a great digital print takes the same amount of training, research and skill as producing a great silver print. Today my black and white prints are my final vision, the final product. The JPGs on the Internet are only a proxy of that final vision. I love the aesthetic and technical challenges (as an artist) of generating museum-quality black and white printing.
The Phoblographer: You have a signature style in your work. When you were starting out, who were some of your inspirations? What techniques did you find most useful from their methods?
Mitch Dobrowner: They are Ansel Adams and Minor White. In my late teens, I became infused with their images, and because of that, I began experimenting with surreal abstract forms and closely watching how light would move across an environment. There will never be another Ansel Adams. There will never be another Minor White.
The Phoblographer: Does everyone’s personality trickle into their photography in some way or another? If yes, what part of Mitch do we see in these storm images?
Mitch Dobrowner: We all see the world in our own way and are different from each other. Even twins see things differently and have opposing personalities. My personal philosophy revolves around the mantra spoken by Edward Abbey: “Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today.”. I also try not to define or classify anything in my life. I’m just happy that the images that I produce do a good job of representing the way I see the world.
The Phoblographer: How supportive have family and friends been along the way? Do some people still think you should take it easier as the years go by and not chase the more dangerous storms?
Mitch Dobrowner: My friends and family are my support and total inspiration. My wife Wendy is my soul mate and inspires me daily. My kids give me life and exhort me. Having any of them tell me to slow down would be dumb; they know who I am and would never tell me to chill.
All images by Mitch Dobrowner. Used with permission. Visit his website to see more of his work.