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On the chase - A world of light and shadow with Mitch Dobrowner

By: Matthew Oxley

 

To be honest, the only time I have ever been scared is while standing out in the field and seeing a wild mouse. Wild mice scare the hell out of me! - Mitch Dobrowner 

 

In 2012 Mitch Dobrowner, the storm chaser, won the overall Photographer of the Year title in the Sony World Photography Awards with his breathtaking series of storms taken throughout the US. Since then his images of nature at it’s most majestic and imposing have gone on to be featured around the world, in books, renowned galleries, and online by the likes of National Geographic, Time, and CNN, among others.

We caught up with him, 5 years on from his overall win, to talk storms, technique and inspiration.

Mitch lives with his wife Wendy, son Joshua, their dog Jet and a “brat cat” called Jax in Studio City, California.

“Growing up on Long Island (Bethpage), NY – I felt lost in my late teens. Worried about my future direction in life, my father gave me an old Argus rangefinder to fool around with. Little did he realize what an important gesture that would turn out to be for me. After doing some research and seeing the images of Minor White and Ansel Adams I quickly became addicted to photography.”

 

Hi Mitch, thanks for chatting with us. 2012 seems like a lifetime ago, what have you been up to since your win?

I've been enjoying life. I feel blessed having found photography, as it’s the way I can express what I see and feel without words. Since my overall win in the Professional competition, I have had the honor of having three books published (by both Aperture Foundation and 21st Editions), I’ve been published by National Geographic, Time magazine, CNN and a variety of other publications worldwide. I had a short film/commercial produced on me by Google and have had 9 solo exhibitions. I've been totally humbled by all of this. I seriously feel lucky and truly blessed.

 

You've said that when you shoot a “quality” image, you know it. Tell us more about that moment. Are they hard to come by or they've gotten easier for you?

I think you have to love what you decide to shoot. The images need to come from deep inside your heart. For me, I love spend­ing time in the envi­ron­ment I'm focusing on, learn­ing about it, see­ing it in dif­fer­ent light­ing and weather con­di­tions. It may sound strange to some, but I need to talk to the sub­ject when I’m shoot­ing, in my own way and with my own voice. When I get to that place I know things will hap­pen. It’s kind of like walk­ing into a dark room and not being able to see but the more time you spend there the more you can see. It’s then that I enjoy sit­ting back and wait­ing for nature to show me what she’s got. I live for that.

 

I'm always interested when photographers take a break from image-making for long periods and then return to the medium. For you that was your time in California running a design studio with your wife. Was photography always in your mind or did you forget about it completely?

I totally forgot about photography during that time. The tasks of run­ning a busi­ness (Design Studio) and rais­ing a fam­ily were all encompassing and took pri­or­ity to my pho­tog­ra­phy; so I just stopped tak­ing pic­tures. It wasn't until early 2005, inspired by my wife, chil­dren and friends, I picked up my cam­eras again.

Why black and white? I know you're heavily influenced by the masters - Ansel Adams especially. Have you ever been tempted by color?

I shoot in black and white because color work is too real and “everyday” to me. I see it through my eyes all the time. Black and white interprets reality the way I “see” and feel. And besides, my wife (who is a designer and painter) says I’m color blind. But I’m not… I just know the names of all the colors. And the only time I see in color is when I’m listening to music. I see music/orchestrations in their various tones. I’m not sure why, but this is the way I see.

 

You’ve said before that you don’t feel in danger or scared chasing storms. Has this always been the case or has it come with experience?

I don't mean to sound macho or tough, I just don't get scared. The experience of standing in front of one of these beautiful structures is so amazing to me. Besides, my friend and chaser-master Roger Hill always has an escape route. We never get ourselves in a super dangerous position, though we have what he calls close encounters where we get right under something, like a rotating cloud. It’s pretty safe though. One of the only rules is once we are "on the chase”, we sip water, eat light, and we don't stop for anything - and I mean anything. To be honest, the only time I have ever been scared is while standing out in the field and seeing a wild mouse. Wild mice scare the hell out of me!

Do you have a photographic philosophy?

My 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 ensure my physical prints are my final vision, the final product. The digital images on the on the screen are only a proxy of those prints. 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. I’m lucky that it seems others relate to the imagery.

 

Where in the world are you and what’s next for you?

I intend to spend more time focusing on my Storm and Desert Southwest land­scapes. There is so much more I want to show there. My goal is to even­tu­ally pub­lish a book of my Desert Southwest series, if I can find the right publisher. I see books as being time­less, some­thing we can leave behind for our kids, grand kids and future gen­er­a­tions.

And I’m really look­ing for­ward to get­ting back to my land­scapes project. I miss the South­west tremen­dously. Utah, New Mex­ico and Ari­zona are where my heart truly is. I can feel my antic­i­pa­tion build­ing as I get set to go back out. It’s a hard feel­ing to translate, so I try my best to describe it with my images.
 

worldphoto.org/swpa
mitchdobrowner.com