It was early evening, maybe six o’clock, when we stopped the van. The storms usually fire up at this time, when the sun has had all day to warm the earth. Then the cumulonimbus towers burst up through the atmosphere and all hell breaks loose.
In chasing terms, it had been an easy day – we’d covered maybe 400 miles to get on to this line of storms in the far west of Kansas. We knew there was little chance of tornadoes, but our guide, my friend Roger Hill – a stormchasing veteran of at least 30 years – thought there was a good chance of some big hail and maybe even some landspout activity [where a tornado forms from the ground up].
We stopped downwind and waited for the developing storm to advance. As I set up, the storm turned into a monster: an almost-solid curtain of rain in the background. Then in the foreground, an unusually large landspout whipped up. The scene was surreal, almost abstract – low-contrast, back-lit, the storm creeping towards us.
But all the while there were really strong outflow winds reminding you it was all too real … and just a wall of precipitation edging toward us. And this was huge for a landspout. Just for scale, if you look carefully to the right of the spout, you can just make out an electricity tower. Landspouts are usually less powerful than regular tornadoes – this was such a rare occurrence that Roger had to confirm with the National Weather Service that it was just a landspout, But you can see it has the classic cylinder shape, rather than a tornado’s typical cone or wedge.
In eight years of chasing, I’ve never seen another storm like this one. I guess I must’ve put around 140,000 miles behind me chasing storms – about five-and-a-half times round the world. But I love travelling through America. Many years ago, as a greenhorn fresh out of Long Island, I didn’t even know Kansas was next to Colorado. But these experiences really opened up my eyes to how these landscapes interact – how the cool, dry air coming off the Rockies spreads over the Plains and collides with all that warm, moist air from the Gulf. And then when you see the effect that can have as they explode … I was hooked.
Storms are nature’s way of restoring balance to the atmosphere. They behave almost like living beings, and I sometimes feel as if what I’m documenting has a personality – like seeing King Kong in the flesh! Each storm has a different life cycle. Some are wild, live fast and die young in a deluge of hail and rain. Others age and change and weaken, fighting to stay alive. Each one deserves to be recorded because they will never happen again in the same way.
You never know what sort of window of opportunity you’ll have. In some cases the storm is moving slowly or predictably enough that you can take half an hour as it passes. Other times, you can see the rotating wall cloud approaching fast, the inflow winds get up and you’re straight back in the van. When baseball-sized hail starts falling you don’t even bother setting up – baseballs and cameras don’t mix.
My teenage son once asked me to take him with me, not expecting much – “maybe you can take a photo of me in front of a tornado,” he was joking. But I wanted to give him an experience with his father that he’d remember for the rest of his life, so in 2014 I took him on a chase near Pilger, Nebraska. That name is now infamous: my son watched amazed as two giant twin wedges dropped out of the sky. He got his photo, but he was kinda keen to get out of there. The inflow winds were insane. I just managed to get the photo before my glasses blew off.
I’ve always photographed in black and white. Modern cameras are calibrated to adjust for how humans see colour, but the sensors can actually see much more than that. So I modify my camera to record what the sensors are capable of seeing rather than what the manufacturer thinks you want to see. Other than that there’s no trickery. I have a few screw-on filters, depending on the light and the environment. I’m pretty sure I took Landspout without any filtration, though. When your subject is as inspiring as this, why would you need to doctor anything?
- Tempest, by Mitch Dobrowner, is on show at Photo-Eye Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 11 November
Mitch Dobrowner’s CV
Born: Bethpage, New York 1957.
Influences: “Ansel Adams and Minor White are my two main influences. Adams changed my life. He not only inspired me, but it was the magazine that he started all those years aback – Aperture – that first published my work.”
High point: “In 2012 I was nominated for the Sony photography awards. My wife persuaded me to go to the ceremony in London. We were chatting at a table as they read out the usual awards for portraiture, fashion. It wasn’t until she told me my name had been called out that I realised I had won the overall prize.”
Low point: “Don’t have one.”
Top tip: “Listen to your instincts.”