When his father put an old Argus rangefinder in his hands at 17, Mitch Dobrowner’s life changed. Already the owner of two Corvettes and a Harley, bought with money earned from a job at a gas station, teenage Mitch was showing signs of a wild streak his father worried might lead to trouble.
“I had good grades, but I wasn’t interested. I never got in really bad trouble but he didn’t want me to go that way.”
From the moment that camera touched his hands, photography gripped him with a drive that seemed natural.
“I was playing guitar at the time, I didn’t like it that much, I wasn’t that great at it, but I wanted to try. But I picked up a camera, and it felt electric to me. Like I had found something.”
That initial connection led Dobrowner to Ansel Adams’ books, which he adopted as his “bibles,” and to build a darkroom in his basement. Later he took a job in sensitometry – making film, and worked as an assistant for photographers Peter Turner and Hashi in Manhattan. Then he got a big break. He brought some of his work to a shoot for a Canon advertisement. The Canon people liked it and offered him a grant.
That money – somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000, he recalls - allowed him to head to the deserts of Utah and Arizona, which at that point he’d only seen in pictures.
Over the next four years, he says he crossed the country about seven times, living out of his car and camping while taking pictures and then crashing with friends in Los Angeles. He eventually settled in L.A. in the early ‘80s.
Then life happened: a wife, three kids and California Film - the successful design company run by him and his wife.
“It was a lot of work at the time, so I had to give up photography. I had to make a choice. Then when things started to wind down, I was able to start my photography again. And it was the same sensation as when I got that Argus camera.”
Dobrowner often found himself shooting in inclement weather. “I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed: the light, the wind blowing in your face, and a storm going over. Even when shooting an urban series of Los Angeles, it was never on a bright beautiful day, it’s always when a storm is coming over.”
That attraction prompted him to start shooting storms. He found out through a friend that storm chaser Sean Casey lived close by; they met and Casey connected Dobrowner with long-time chaser Roger Hill, who he’s been shooting with since 2009.
To get the kind of big surreal storms he wanted, Hill suggested going to states like Utah, Wyoming and Montana in July, later in the storm season. The first day of that first trip in 2009 was a success.
“I went out as an experiment, I had never seen a super cell like that before. The first day we were out I was just dumbfounded at what I saw, it was just so surreal to me. And then the second day, I knew at that point it wasn’t just an experiment, it was a lifetime project. “
The storms can also prove to be a bit dangerous, like the storm in his photo called “Bear’s Claw,” which caused quite a bit of damage to Moorcroft, Wyoming, in 2010.
“That’s the ultimate hailstorm. (It was) like a hail monster coming over the hill. Usually we chase the storms, this one just cranked and came over the hill at 40-50 miles an hour and ended up chasing us. We had to run from that. We had jackets up against the windows because we thought the windows were just going to blow out from the hail.”
The Audubon Society printed some of his photos, including “Bear’s Claw.” That magazine wound up in a beauty parlor in Moorcroft, where locals recognized the area. The grandson of the woman whose house can be seen as a small detail in the photo contacted the photographer. He wanted a copy for his grandma’s birthday.
“What a small world, that I would be on that road, photographing that and this guy whose grandma lives in that house actually contacted me.”
The drama in Dobrowner’s images can likely be attributed to the approach he uses. He shoots with a pair of Canon 5d MK II’s. But instead of post-processing his images to black and white, as many would, he sets the camera to shoot black and white at the start. He says the only post-processing he does is to remove some saturation.
He chose the camera model for its live view mode, which lets him see exactly what the camera’s sensor is seeing. “That has helped me a lot, because I filter like I do with black and white (film). I’ll use a red filter or a green filter or a polarizer. If I want to use IR to shoot a little into the clouds, I’ll shoot IR.”
But in the end he says, “the camera is a throwaway.”
“The camera is like the paintbrush. It needs to do things for me that I need it to do, it doesn’t tell me what to do. I would never shoot in an automatic mode, everything is manual - I set them a certain way - I work the cameras myself so I can create black and white imagery with an affordable camera. And then I’ll throw that camera away when it breaks and move to the next camera.”
National Geographic validated his approach with a 10-page spread of his images last July. “They pixel peeped every file, so it was almost like a certification for me. That these were nonmanipulated images, as latent as possible.”
In the end he says he hopes his work can stand as a document for the way the world is now.
“My perception is that we’re on this big rock that’s spinning through space. These things have been going on for a long time, way before we were around and will probably last longer than you and me will be around. So I’m just trying to photograph what it’s like in this era.”
- Cody McCloy, CNN.com
'Storms,' Mitch Dobrowner's third book, will be available from Aperture in October.