Photographer Mitch Dobrowner creates images of extreme weather that have the nuance and beauty of delicate portraits. Violent skies are contained by his frame and turned into artwork that begs to be admired. He shows no evidence of the destruction; he simply revels in the beauty of the beast.
Much like the storms that Dobrowner photographs his career has appeared out of thin air and is suddenly a force to be reckoned with. He started shooting weather in 2009 and now has gallery representation with seven galleries, heaps of awards and a new book published with 21st Editions.
It’s been an unexpected whirlwind for a photographer who only intended image-making as a hobby. Dobrowner was never a professional photographer and despite his success in the fine art world, success that many pros never attain, he still considers photography a leisurely pursuit.
In our recent telephone interview Dobrowner shared stories about finding, chasing, avoiding and photographing storms. He also spoke at length about breaking into the art world, the growing pains that come with it and advice for photographers trying to do the same.
Seckler: First tell me about the story about creating this image “Bear’s Claw.”
Dobrowner: This is a storm that we started tracking in South Dakota. We had chased the storm for three or four hours, waiting for something to happen, and then came upon a field in Wyoming where we sat for about ten minutes. In front of our eyes, the storm turned extremely violent, into a hail storm. Things changed direction and came straight at us, probably about 50-60 miles an hour. If you look at the image, you can see the ground is a little blurred because we were standing in 50 mile-an-hour winds at the time. It turned from us chasing the storm into the storm chasing us.
Seckler: Storm photography is a pretty intense niche to be in, what turned you on to this subject matter?
Dobrowner: My main focus has always been landscape photography. What I enjoyed most was going out during the nastiest weather I could possibly find. It came to me that since I enjoyed photographing in that type of weather, I could do an experiment going after the most severe type weather possible. The project started in the late summer of 2009. I didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen.
Seckler: So what happened?
Dobrowner: When I first started to investigate storm photography, I had a friend over and we were watching Storm Chasers. I was like, “You’ve got to check this guy, Sean Casey, out.” And my friend said, “You know this guy. This guy lives right behind us.” So we took a walk up the block, and out in front of the gentleman’s house was the TIV [Tornado Intercept Vehicle]. I took down his address, and the next day I FedExed him three prints and introduced myself. We had a cup of coffee, and he invited me to go out with the Discovery [Channel] with him. He eventually said, “You probably shouldn’t come out. It’s just too much of a circus,” and recommended another veteran storm chaser whose name was Roger Hill. [Hill] explained to me the science of Tornado Alley …The second day we went out, we started in Sturgis, South Dakota, and ended up seeing a storm system forming to our south, which we tracked. It was due southeast, and we tracked it through the badlands, South Dakota, and down through Valentine, Nebraska. It was nine hours [drive]. I don’t remember how many miles we drove — must have been somewhere between 500-700 miles that day. We ended up in a large field in Valentine, Nebraska, with a 60,000 foot cyclone — a mesocyclone, as they call it — just standing in front of us in a field. I was looking around saying, “Holy shit. I cannot believe what I’m actually looking at.” It was such a surreal sight to me.
Seckler: How did you photograph these storms? Did you have any special weather-proofing equipment in case it started pouring?
Dobrowner: The basic equipment I had was the beanie on my head. When it started raining, I put it over the camera. I’m not so much into camera equipment. To me, cameras are a tool; they’re not something to polish and shine and never use and brag about. To me, it’s like a paintbrush. I need to understand it like an extension of my hand. It can’t be something that I’m intimidated by or don’t fully understand. I don’t want to be thinking about it when I’m standing in front of a 60,000 foot cyclone. I just want to be concentrating on composition and exposure and just really focus.
Seckler: Once you’ve captured the images, do you do a lot of work in Photoshop?
Dobrowner: No. When I started photography as my art, I needed it to be really simple. I worked out a digital system that emulates capturing what I would call the latent images, or the live images, to look live. Basically what I’m doing now is the same type of controls that I would do in a wet darkroom, which are dodge, burn and contrast.
Seckler: When you go out with Roger Hill, the meteorologist, does he do all the tracking, and you simply go along for the ride?
Dobrowner: Pretty much. Roger has thirty plus years of experience. If I went out by myself the first time, I probably would have been killed. So I’m using his expertise, and he understands what I’m looking for.
Seckler: I’m guessing that chasing storms is not an exact science. Do you find a storm every time you go out?
Dobrowner: Definitely not. Usually we go out for like ten days at a time. They can be long road trips. I don’t think we’ve done a trip that’s been less than 4,000 miles in ten days. Sometimes there are no storms at all, and you have a down day. You see predictions two or three days out, so you may start moving into an area that looks like [weather] fronts are going to meet two or three days later. It’s difficult to get to right place at the right time. It’s Mother Nature. It’s unscripted. It takes a lot of tenacious determination.
Seckler: In ten days, how many storms do you typically see?
Dobrowner: It’s really random. There have been times where we went out and saw three storms in 10 days. The first time I went out we probably saw 15 storms in 10 days.
Seckler: What are you ultimately trying to capture with your weather photography?
Dobrowner: These storms have been going on forever in tornado alley. I was just trying to experience them for myself for the first time. It’s like the first time you see anything that looks unbelievable to you. Shooting a storm is a landscape, but it’s like shooting a sporting event. Things are happening so fast around you; sometimes you don’t have a lot of time. You might be able to get three shots off, and the composition — the shape of the storms — constantly changes. You have to make very fast decisions.
Seckler: How dangerous is it?
Dobrowner: I think the most dangerous thing is probably the lightning. We’re pretty safe about escape routes, north-south or east to west. We know how to get out of there before we get to that location.
Seckler: You started doing this in 2009, and you’ve gotten a ton of gallery representation and won a bunch of awards. What has it been like, being in the center of your own storm of success, so to speak?
Dobrowner: I’m really lucky. I think the first thing that happened was that somebody recommended I show work to Lenswork magazine. I looked at the magazine and said there’s no way I’d ever get into this, but I’ll submit anyway. I got a call a couple weeks later that they wanted to publish me and put my picture on the front cover of the magazine. After that, people started contacting me.
Seckler: Do you do all the prints or do you send them to a lab?
Dobrowner: I do all the printing myself. I have an Epson 3800 and an Epson 9800 printer. I’ve burned up a lot of inks, gotten a lot of people to help me with critiques, and the thing I’ve learned from [inkjet] printing is it’s a very different science than the wet darkroom. It’s just as complex to achieve a really good print, just as time consuming, and just as much sweat and blood. I’m actually working on a book now with 21st Editions, generating silver prints that come with each book. The inkjets I do look just as good as the silver prints that are archival. Most galleries think they look better.
Seckler: Tell me about how long you’ve been shooting and when you started doing this professionally?
Dobrowner: My father bought me this old Argus rangefinder when I was 18 or 19, and I just loved it. I ended up doing some assistant work for Pete Turner at Hashi in Manhattan and eventually got some money and came out to California, doing landscape work. I had a show at a gallery here, met my wife, had a bunch of kids, ran my own business, and dropped photography because life took over. When I gravitated back in 2005, I started all over again. I just loved it and started shooting like crazy.
Seckler: Are you exclusively a fine art photographer?
Dobrowner: No, I also have a day job. I work for Sony. I help build their studios’ digital infrastructure. Everybody’s got this preconceived notion that you make it in the art world, and you can make millions of dollars — which isn’t always true, though I do fairly well with my print sales. I never wanted to be taking a picture and at the same time be thinking I would have to sell the print to pay the rent or the mortgage. So it’s really allowed me to be totally free with my art. I can just go out and enjoy it.
Seckler: How do you come up with pricing for the prints?
Dobrowner: I work with the galleries. I listen to what their advice is. A lot of galleries contacted me, and my first inclination was to go with every gallery that contacted me, which I found to be kind of a mistake because there are great galleries and not-so-great galleries. And when you sign up with the gallery, you’re really a business partner. You have to really like who you’re working with because they are representing you when you’re not there. The first shot I shot was an image called “Civilization.” I was like, “I like this image. Let’s do an edition of 100.” All the galleries, when they saw it, said, “What are you doing? You don’t do an edition of 100. You do an edition of five.” I just went with my gut instinct, which seems to work out for me. But usually they have a base price, and as it sells [through the] edition, they raise the price. The reason to raise the price is to slow down the sales a little bit, so maybe when I’m 85 years old, and I’ve got no food on the table and one print left, it sells for like $20,000 and I’m okay. I also don’t want people who really want an image but can’t afford it [to not be able to own a print]. So, I’ve worked it out where I have a folio with Lenswork where you can buy a print for like $125.
Seckler: They’re selling eight images for a $100, and some images are selling through galleries for thousands — for obviously a larger size, but it’s the same image. Do any galleries look down on that?
Dobrowner: No. We went in to the first time as an experiment, but it didn’t slow down the sales at all. In fact, the books I’m doing with 21st Editions are limited edition books. I wanted to do a book before I died, but I always wanted the book to be something I left behind for when I’m not around anymore, for my great-great-great grandchildren. Then I got a call from 21st Editions, and they do these phenomenal, wonderful books, but they do sell for an expensive price. The first book — the Prism edition, which comes out at the end of the summer — is a limited edition. It starts at $750 a book and comes with a print. And then the deluxe, Platinum edition, which comes out later, sells at $9,000 a book. Supposedly there are some presales already.
Seckler: Before you mentioned that at first you signed up for a bunch of different galleries but weren’t crazy about that decision in hindsight. Why is that?
Dobrowner: Different people have different intentions. Some of them are in it for the money; some of them are in it for the love of art; and some are in it for a combination of both. The ones I ended up gravitating towards were in it for the love of art more than the love of money. It’s kind of like life; you meet somebody that you really get along with, and you feel like you have some kind of a relationship with. And there are those people that you talk to and it doesn’t click. It’s the same kind of thing.
Seckler: Do you have any advice for photographers wanting to do storm photography?
Dobrowner: Do your research. I spent a lot of time doing my research before I went out — who to go with, when to go, what it would be like, what I might be going after … So my advice is to do your research and really do something that you like, instead of being forced into something because you think someday somebody will buy a print. Follow your instincts, and don’t listen to what other people say unless it’s good advice. People always have something negative to say. If it’s not constructive, don’t listen to it.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Sarah Lynn Knowles
This piece was originally published 6/1/11 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.