Mitch Dobrowner — Storm Photography

It gives me great plea­sure to announce that our pho­tog­ra­phy blog will be fea­tur­ing inter­views and the pho­tog­ra­phy of some of the extremely tal­ented pho­tog­ra­phers from Adore Noir Mag­a­zine. Adore Noir mag­a­zine is pub­lished online from Van­cou­ver, B.C. Canada and is ded­i­cated to fine art black and white pho­tog­ra­phy. This inter­view fea­tures Mitch Dobrowner, an Amer­i­can fine art pho­tog­ra­pher who spe­cial­izes in storm photography.

Monsoon by Mitch Dobrowner

Mon­soon by Mitch Dobrowner


AN: Please tell us about your pho­to­graphic back­ground. What led you to your path of creativity?

MD: I’m pretty much self taught. I worked in New York City for a short time as an assis­tant for two com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phers. After get­ting in a bunch of trou­ble and feel­ing lost in my teens my father slung me an old Argus rangefinder, with his fin­gers crossed! The first time I shot a roll of film and processed it I fell in love with the art. Then after see­ing the images of Ansel Adams and Minor White at the age of twenty, I decided to see the Amer­i­can South­west for myself. To make a long story short, I left home, quit my jobs, and left my friends and fam­ily to see the Amer­i­can South­west for myself. Over the next four years I trav­eled cross coun­try seven times, liv­ing out of my car, camp­ing in the deserts and show­er­ing once in a while in a cheap motel. I was shoot­ing pic­tures the entire time.

I even­tu­ally landed in Los Ange­les. I man­aged to get a solo exhibit for Canon at their gallery on Wilshire Blvd. That exhibit was reviewed in Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy, which was one of two major pho­tog­ra­phy mag­a­zines at the time. My mom sent me that mag­a­zine recently. It was fun to read.

About a year later I met my wife Wendy, she is an amaz­ing designer. Together we have three chil­dren. We also cre­ated our own design stu­dio. Dur­ing that time the tasks of run­ning a busi­ness and rais­ing a fam­ily took a pri­or­ity to pho­tog­ra­phy and I stopped tak­ing pic­tures. Then in early 2005, inspired by my wife, chil­dren and friends, I picked up my cam­eras again.

Today pho­tog­ra­phy is my way to com­mu­ni­cate how I feel with­out words. When I’m out pho­tograph­ing things seem sim­ple again, time slows down and the world around me gets quiet. It’s then that I’m able to focus in a man­ner that allows me to con­nect with my imag­i­na­tion. Those moments are how I’ve learned to still my soul; it’s my happy place. It’s about the only times where I’m alone and can hear my heart beat­ing again. So today I see myself on a pas­sion­ate mis­sion to make up for years of lost time by cre­at­ing images that help evoke how I see our world.

Shiprock Storm by Mitch Dobrowner

Shiprock Storm by Mitch Dobrowner


AN: What do you enjoy most about pho­tograph­ing landscapes?

MD: I’m in love with the South­west. It’s a truly mys­ti­cal and spir­i­tual place. I find it easy to pho­to­graph. I see my work as being por­traits of the rocks and their envi­ron­ment. 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 that envi­ron­ment, learn­ing about it, see­ing in in dif­fer­ent light­ing and weather con­di­tions. It may sounds 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 just enjoy sit­ting back and wait­ing for nature to show me what she’s got. I live for that.

AN: What are your influences?

MD: I love the images of Ansel Adams and Minor White. Besides my fam­ily, they pro­vide my pho­to­graphic inspi­ra­tion. The first time I saw either of those pho­tog­ra­phers works I was floored. Their images left a major impact on my life and the direc­tion it would go. Cre­atively I also have to include the artis­tic vision of Jimi Hen­drix. He was an amaz­ing artist.

AN: How did you become inter­ested in storms?

MD: Prior to the storm series my pri­mary focus was on land­scapes, both in the South­west and urban envi­ron­ments. When shoot­ing them I always found myself seek­ing out nasty, unsta­ble weather. So I always won­dered what it would be like to expe­ri­ence the storm sys­tems in the mid-west. So in the sum­mer of 2009 I said — fuck it, and decided to take a trip out there. I thought that if I could find what I was visu­al­iz­ing in my mind it could lead to the next step in the pro­gres­sion of my work. I also wanted to chal­lenge myself because I wanted to con­tinue to grow in my art and not be seen as the next “color of the month” or “one trick pony.” I wanted to keep push­ing, I directed my focus away from the South­west for a period of time and started work­ing on under­stand­ing the sci­ence of weather and find an expe­ri­enced chaser to help me. And I did! His name is Roger Hill.

Bears Claw by Mitch Dobrowner

Bears Claw by Mitch Dobrowner


AN: Know­ing the risks involved, what made you want to pho­to­graph storms?

MD: My imag­i­na­tion. I kept see­ing images in my mind of what pho­tograph­ing a major storm would look like. As I started research­ing the sub­ject I came to appre­ci­ate the sci­ence behind find­ing these large struc­tured super cells. As a land­scape pho­tog­ra­pher it always took skill, and a bit of luck, to be in the right place at the right time. To actively pur­sue these weather events just seemed like it would be a fun exper­i­ment and challenge.

AN: What is your most mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence while on a shoot?

MD: Prob­a­bly my time at Shiprock, New Mex­ico, though there were oth­ers that came in at a close sec­ond, like the Valen­tine Nebraska storm. But Shiprock was very spe­cial to me.

I had seen images of Shiprock before, but never the image I had in my mind. Though I hadn’t seen the for­ma­tion in per­son, Shiprock 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, New Mex­ico, 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. I had to drive in the rain, over rocks, mud, snow, and sand. As we arrived in late Decem­ber, the weather con­di­tions made for moody, atmos­pheric pho­tographs, it also gave me frozen fin­gers and toes! I spent the first eight days dri­ving, scout­ing, and sit­ting qui­etly in the area that sur­rounds 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.

On 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, rain­ing, dark, and freez­ing. The ther­mome­ter on my truck read between two and twelve degrees Fahren­heit above zero. For a few min­utes I remem­ber think­ing I was nuts. As this was the fifth time in eight days that I was mak­ing this trip. 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 eight-hundred miles from Cal­i­for­nia to get.

When I finally arrived at Shiprock that morn­ing it was about 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, it felt like we had a conversation.

My hope is that this image helps com­mu­ni­cate what I saw and the humil­ity I felt while
pho­tograph­ing this amaz­ing structure.

AN: Please tell us about your post processing.

MD: I’d say that most of my time is spent in the pre-process stage, not post-processing. That focus makes my post process work flow pretty sim­ple. But one thing that is impor­tant is that I stay focused on the total process because it all leads up to the qual­ity of the final print. The way a JPG looks on my web­site is impor­tant but the final print rep­re­sents my final vision.
I come from a film/wet dark­room back­ground, how­ever, I cur­rently use a dig­i­tal work flow for spe­cific rea­sons, the qual­ity of the final prod­uct being num­ber one.

My cam­eras have always felt like an exten­sion of my brain and hands when I’m out shoot­ing. That’s because I spend time learn­ing the tool (ie: cam­era) inside and out, just as I would if I was a musi­cian play­ing an instru­ment. If you wanted to be a great gui­tar player you’d have to prac­tice and learn every aspect of the gui­tar, right? I feel the same way about a cam­era. I’m also not one to buy an expen­sive cam­era and put in in auto mode and just shoot away. I trash my cam­eras, I treat them like paint brushes, it’s just a tool. It’s just some­thing I use to cap­ture a vision.

All my images are cap­tured latent, mean­ing in cam­era. Live-view really allows me to use my cam­era in the same man­ner I use the ground glass on a view-camera. With live-view I can now see the image in the exact way I am cap­tur­ing it, in black-and-white, with the cam­era in black-and-white mode. In the past when shoot­ing film and using a view-camera, I always had to view the image upside down, back­wards and red, green or blue (if I used filters).

Dur­ing print­ing I per­form a nor­mal amount of dodg­ing, burn­ing, bright­ness and con­trast con­trols on the images in Pho­to­shop. Sim­i­lar to what I would do in the wet dark­room. I print on Epson 3800 and 9800 print­ers with cot­ton rag papers.

AN: Can you give us a bit of a time­line regard­ing your rise in pop­u­lar­ity. How did you go about get­ting noticed?

MD: It all started by sub­mit­ting work to LensWork mag­a­zine. The first time I saw LensWork I had low expec­ta­tions for get­ting pub­lished in it. I had only been shoot­ing again for about a year, but I sub­mit­ted any­way. I never expected to even hear back.

About a month later, I received and email say­ing I would be pub­lished in the next edi­tion and that one of my images Church Rock would be used on the cover. To say the least I was shocked, and I jumped up and down! Since that fist port­fo­lio was pub­lished in March of 2007 I’ve been pub­lished in LensWork two more times. A total of three times to date.

After that first LensWork edi­tion I was con­tacted by the John Cleary Gallery in Hous­ton, Texas, ask­ing if I would like to do a solo exhibit. So my first solo show was July 2007. I still remem­ber the email I received from Cather­ine Cou­turier, the gallery’s direc­tor. It read “we love your work and would like to put on a solo show”. What can ya say — no? That show was really well received, much bet­ter then I could have ever imag­ined! At the time I also had the oppor­tu­nity to meet the late John Cleary. My wife and I had a won­der­ful time with him for the four days we spent together. What an hon­our. Since then I have had a total of three solo exhibits at the gallery.

After the first John Cleary exhibit I was approached by Alex Novak at Vintage/Contemporary Works — and from there things con­tin­ued to hap­pen. I count myself very lucky.

AN: You have had a lot of suc­cess in your pho­to­graphic career, to what do you attribute this?

MD: I’m not so sure I’ve reached any­thing yet. The last five years have been really fluid, and I’d like it to stay that way. I’m thrilled that peo­ple have reacted to my work, but what is most impor­tant to me is to con­tinue con­cen­trat­ing on cre­at­ing new imagery. I do count myself very lucky to be in the posi­tion I’m in today, I believe that my best work is still to come.

Church Rock by Mitch Dobrowner

Church Rock by Mitch Dobrowner


AN: How did you get involved with 21st Edi­tions for your book?

MD: I was never in a rush to do a book, I always thought that things would hap­pen when the time was right. So I never pushed it think­ing that even­tu­ally the right oppor­tu­nity would arise.

Then in mid-2010 I received a call from the pub­lisher of 21st Edi­tions — Steve Alba­hari. He asked a few ques­tions and before I knew it I found the per­fect pub­lish­ing com­pany to work with. For any­one not famil­iar with 21st Edi­tions, the books are of the high­est cal­i­bre, they’re amazing!

Work­ing with 21st Edi­tions has been a dream come true. They are an amaz­ing ded­i­cated, pas­sion­ate group of crafts­man. The books are all hand made and are in per­fect tune with me. They are totally sen­si­tive to each detail per­tain­ing to the pro­duc­tion of the books and the pre­sen­ta­tion my work. I’m a very lucky man. The first of the two books comes out in Sep­tem­ber 2011. The sec­ond book is out some­time before the end of 2011. I’m thrilled with they way they’re turn­ing out.

AN: What advice would you give to a young fine art pho­tog­ra­pher who is dream­ing of grandeur?

MD: I’d rec­om­mend read­ing Ansel Adams’ Print, Neg­a­tive, Cam­era series of books. For me, it’s my bible. All the method­olo­gies still apply, it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary thinking.

Today there are so many avenues that pho­tog­ra­phers can take to get their work shown. Just think of what avenues the mas­ter pho­tog­ra­phers of old had. They had no inter­net, no e-mail, very few pub­li­ca­tions, and pho­tog­ra­phy only had a few peo­ple that were con­sid­ered true “artists”. How did they get their imagery out there? It was quite a chal­lenge as com­pared to what tools we have today. I also remem­ber what Michael Kenna once told me when I first started: “show to every­one and any­one who is inter­ested in your work and if the gods shine down on you, things could happen.”

My only other piece of advice is: no mat­ter what any­one says you should always fol­low your gut instincts. Don’t care what peo­ple think or how they feel about your work. Do what you want to do as it’s Your art. Even if it means break­ing away from what every­one else is doing. Don’t fol­low advice, just do it! That’s all I ever do. Break­ing from the pack is a good thing.

AN: Can you tell us about any future projects?

MD: I intend to spend more time pho­tograph­ing storm sys­tems and land­scapes, I would even­tu­ally like to pub­lish a few more books. I see books as being time­less, some­thing we can leave behind for our kids, grand kids and future gen­er­a­tions. I’m really look­ing for­ward to get­ting back to my land­scapes project. I miss the South­west tremen­dously. Utah, New Mex­ico and Ari­zona is 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 describe so I try to just describe it in my images.

AN: What’s your final say?

MD: The final image is all that is important.

Civilization by Mitch Dobrowner

Civ­i­liza­tion by Mitch Dobrowner


This inter­view and accom­pa­ny­ing images was reprinted with per­mis­sion from Adore Noir.
Adore Noir is a sub­scrip­tion based online pho­tog­ra­phy mag­a­zine spe­cial­iz­ing in awe­some fine art black and white photography.

Speak Your Mind