Each month our WPO interviews winners from the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards to find out more about their work and influences.
Mitch Dobrowner, Winner, 2012 L'Iris d'Or Award
© Mitch Dobrowner
Can you share a bit of how you came to follow and photograph storms?
While I was growing up on Long Island (Bethpage, NY) I've always loved being caught in thunderstorms. Then as an adult (though I'm still kinda a kid), while photographing landscapes I’ve always found myself fond of going out in the nastiest, most unstable weather I could find because of the atmosphere and lighting that it created. So I decided, what the heck... why not go find the even more severe weather?
So in 2009 I started researching the subject of storm systems and how they formed.... and came to appreciate how complex these large structured super-cells were. But because I wanted to actively pursue them I needed help…. so I went on a hunt to locate a guide. I soon connected with Roger Hill (regarded as the most experienced storm-chaser in the world), and he introduced me to Tornado Alley.
Do you experience any fear in the midst of superstorms?
No, I don't get scared that easily. The only thing that really scares me are small, wild mice. The thing with Storms is that they are so amazing to witness that I'm mostly in awe when photographing them. The experience is surreal.
Have you ever found yourself in a precarious position while on a shoot?
That would probably be photographing the storm in Moorcroft, Wyoming in 2010 (Bear's Claw). That was on July 19 and that storm was the largest hailstorm I have witnessed to date. The day started at Devils Tower, Wyoming. By early afternoon we began tracking a large cell just west of Moorcroft. As we approached the storm we decided to pull off onto a dirt road and wait for the storm to come to us. It was heading directly towards our location.
Standing in the field I will never forget the sight of this monster hailstorm as it breached the hills right in from of us. As it came over the hills at about 40mph, raining golf ball sized hail. I was able to get off about 6 shots before the situation became a bit 'hairy'... and as we all made a dash back to the van it became obvious that this was no ordinary storm. In fact in the particular case this situation turned into we were being chased by the storm - instead of us chasing after it. We attempted to get out of its way, and though we eluded its core.... the town of Moorcroft, Wyoming was not so lucky.
© Mitch Dobrowner
What has been your most memorable shoot to date?
The most impressive location I've ever photographed has to be Shiprock New Mexico (USA), though there were others that came a close 2nd (ie: the Valentine Nebraska storm being another). But Shiprock was very special to me.
Before I left to see it I had seen images of Shiprock before but I never saw the image I had in my mind. Though I hadn’t seen the formation in person, this rock touched something deep inside me. I think it was because I knew that it is the spiritual center of the Navajo Nation, or maybe it was because it is the remnant of an ancient volcano. But this combination of history and geology ignited something inside me. So I traveled to the Four Corners area of New Mexico with my family to photograph it.
When I arrived (in Farmington NM) I was totally overwhelmed by my first distant sighting of this otherworldly formation. Over the next ten days I woke up at ungodly hours to drive long distances in order to arrive at first light, and then left after sundown each day in order to catch the last light driving over rocks, in mud, snow, rain, and sand. As we arrived in late December, the weather conditions made for cold/freezing, moody, atmospheric photographs, as well as giving me frozen fingers and toes. I spent the first eight days driving, scouting, and sitting quietly in the area surrounding Shiprock. It also seemed like the more time I spent in the area, the more I knew that I would need to be patient despite the cold. The morning of the eighth day I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and got into my truck in the freezing rain and snow - with a warm cup of coffee. From Farmington, the drive to Shiprock was 50 miles one way. It was snowing, and then raining, dark, and freezing. The thermometer on my truck read between two and twelve degrees above zero (Fahrenheit). For a few minutes there I remember thinking I was nuts. As this was the fifth time in eight days that I was making this trip (during this visit), my mind kept saying, “Why are you going out again when you could have stayed with your family in a warm bed? You’re an idiot. You’re not going to get anything.” But I felt driven, as I wanted to capture the image I had driven 800 miles from California to get.
When I finally arrived at Shiprock that morning it was approx 5:45 a.m. The sun was just coming up and the Shiprock was behind a wall of clouds. When I finally stopped and stepped out with my camera and tripod, I sank ankle deep into cold mud. But when I looked up I knew that what was about to happen in front of me was the thing I had come all this way for.
For the next three hours I sat in front of Shiprock…not a soul around, and I felt like we had a conversation. There are the times when it's almost like Mother Nature is says, ‘Oh yeah, you’re out here for a snapshot? Prove to me that you’re for real.’ And eventually if you’re there, when you really tune it in…that’s what happened with Shiprock.
My hope is that the image I shot represents what I felt while photographing that amazing structure.
Do you plan to shoot in advance, or are you simply prepared for whenever the perfect moment to shoot arises?
It’s a combination. I spend a good amount of time thinking about what I want to focus on. I’m in love with the Southwest. It’s a truly mystical, spiritual place. I find it easy to photograph. I see my work being portraits of the rocks and environments. I think you need to love what you decide to shoot. The images need to come from your heart.
I spend time in the environment learning about it, seeing in in different light and weather conditions. I talk to the subject I’m shooting it in my own way. So I position myself to be in the right place at the right time, and then just wait for nature to show me what she’s got. I just wait for the right lightingand weather conditions.
© Mitch Dobrowner
Have you any plans for specific future projects?
My future plans includes continuing with my landscapes (American Southwest), photographing storms again (this summer) and a expedition to Iceland in March of 2013.
Can you share some details on your recent publications?
I was recently published in the July 2012 edition of National Geographic. The article was 10 pages and highlighted my Storm images. I was thrilled as rarely does Nat Geo publish the work highlighting a single photographer. I'm now also working on a new book with Aperture. The book is set to release during the Fall of 2013.