Framework, the photography and video blog of the Los Angeles Times, is launching a visual series titled “reFramed.” Curated by staff photographer Barbara Davidson, it will showcase fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. twitter@photospice
Mitch Dobrowner is a fine art photographer based in Studio City. His work will be shown this week at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va. Dobrowner is represented by the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles and has published two books.
“Landscapes are living eco systems and environments. They have existed well before, and will hopefully be here way beyond the time we are here. When taking photographs, time and space seem hard for me to measure. Whenever I shoot a ‘quality’ image, I know it. At those moments things are quiet, seem simple again – and I obtain a respect and reverence for the world that is hard to communicate through words. For me these moments happen when the exterior environment and my interior world combine.”
Q: How did you first become interested in photography?
A: Growing up on Long Island, (Bethpage), N.Y., 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. To make a long story short, I left home at 21, quitting my job, leaving my friends and family to see the American Southwest for myself. In California I eventually met my wife, and together we had 3 children, and created our own design studio – and the tasks of running a business and raising a family took a priority to photography. During that time I stopped taking pictures. Years later, in early 2005, inspired by my wife, children and friends I again picked up my cameras. Today I see myself on a passionate mission to make up for years of lost time – creating images that help evoke how I see our wonderful planet. I feel that I owe much to the great photographers of the past, especially Ansel Adams, for their dedication to the craft and for inspiring me in my late teens. Though I have never met them, their inspiration helped me determine the course my life would take.
Q: How did Mother Nature become your muse?
A: I just fell in love with the landscapes and deserts of the American Southwest; especially Southern Utah. It’s a truly mystical, spiritual environment. That infatuation expanded into other landscapes on our planet. I experience these landscapes as ancient structures that have been here way before we were here… and will exist well beyond the time we are gone. They have seen and witness much. I feel honored to be able to capture these images in a manner that I experience them. I guess what you see in my images is my romance with the Southwest, the cities we’ve built on them and the beauty of Mother Nature.
Q: I love that no two images from your Storm essay are the same—nature doesn’t allow it. Does a constantly changing canvas draw you to this kind of work?
A: Yes. I see the storms as living, breathing things. They are born when the conditions are right, they gain strength as they grow, they fight against their environment to stay alive, they change form and mature as they age … and eventually they get old and die. Sounds familiar. Storms take on so many different aspects, personalities and faces; I’m in awe watching them. They are an amazing sight to witness…and I’m just happy to be there—shot or no shot; it’s watching Mother Nature at her finest. I just try and do justice to these events with my pictures.
“Light-Rain,” near Goodland, Ks.
Q: Is being at the right place at the right time critical to creating your images? Can you tell me how you prepare for a shoot?
A: I’ve never been one to go out there to drive around, take a couple of snapshots and come back. Usually I’m out there for days or weeks at a time. The first day I might actually just be detoxing from life in L.A., the second day I might get more into it, and then finally the third, fourth, fifth day I start to really feel the spirit of the place or environment I’m photographing. In order to capture the true feeling of these scenes I’ve got to be there in more than a physical way. I wait for that internal, spiritual connection to come. It also makes for a more tangible, physical challenge. Once I’m in that ‘place’ I only wait for those moments that are just the right moments. My real goal is not to do a lot of talking about the images – but to let the images do the talking for themselves.
Q: I think many war photographers would be afraid to do what you do. Can you tell me about the first time you witnessed and photographed a super-cell thunderstorm? How did it feel to witness Mother Nature’s brutal force?
A: The ‘Storm’ series really just started as an experiment. Though I had done my research beforehand I had no idea what to really expect. On the second day out (July 13, 2009) we sat in Sturgis, S.D., watching a storm system form just to our south. It was traveling southeast, so we took off after it. We tracked it through the Badlands, in South Dakota, and down into Valentine, Neb., It was a total of a nine-hour, 500+ mile drive. We eventually stopped in a field outside Valentine. When we got out of the van we stood in awe of the sight of a 65,000 foot high, rotating super-cell right in front of us. The storm was continuing to build, with intake wind gusts of 50 mph+. The only way I could describe it in words is – I felt like we were standing next to a 65,000 ft. high vacuum cleaner. Its formation had an ominous presence and power that I had never witnessed or experienced before in my life. I remember turning to Roger Hill (my guide) who was standing next to me, and saying in the howling winds, “What the..! You have got to be kidding me.” It was only the second day of my “experiment,” but I knew without a doubt that this experiment had just become a project.
“Mesocyclone,” Valentine, Ne.
Q: How did you learn to track storms? Do you track with a guide or do you work solo? Any close calls you might like to share with our readers?
A: I work with a gentleman, friend and soul mate named Roger Hill. Roger is the most experienced storm chaser on the planet. He knows me, knows what I’m looking for and just allows me to be myself. In regards to close calls, I never get scared. That is because what I am usually photographing is such an amazing sight that I get into a zone that is hard to describe. It is awe-inspiring and exhilarating. But as a description of what could be called a close call-there was a storm that we started tracking in South Dakota in July of 2010. We chased the storm for three or four hours, waiting for something to happen, finally catching up to it in a field in Moorcroft, Wyo.. There we sat for about 10 minutes, waiting for the storm to arrive. Eventually the storm breached the hills in front of us and as it did it turned extremely violent – into a huge hailstorm. As it came over the hills it changed direction and began heading straight at us, probably about 40-to-50 mph. This adventure turned from us chasing the storm into the storm chasing us. The storm eventually did major hail damage to the small town of Moorcroft, Wyo..
“Bear’s Claw,” Moorcroft, Wy.
Q: Looking at your images of Los Angeles, one gets a sense that the urban sprawl and nature are competing with one another for space. Your Southwest landscapes are eerily beautiful and look like they are from another planet. Was this your intent?
A: I always have to remind myself that what seems to be is not always as it really is; that the Earth is really a billion-year-old rock spinning through Outer Space. If I could do a time-lapse of L.A. we’d see that everything we have is also just temporary. We’d see that the landscape itself wouldn’t change but what mankind builds would rise and fall. We’re only temporary here. The land we think we own, we actually only borrow. Regarding Los Angeles, I love the city. I also love urban landscapes man has built. One of my first experiences in Los Angeles that I can remember was looking down at the San Fernando Valley from on top of the 405 Freeway. I got ‘the chills’ as I thought it was one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. The spirit of that sighting is all I’ve been trying to capture ever since with my Urban series of images.
“Civilization,” Los Angeles
Q: From a technical standpoint, how do you craft your images so masterfully?
A: I don’t see the work as just pure landscape photography, but also as an exercise in watching light. I really shoot what I see, and then realize that as a fine art print. For me (as an artist) my final vision is the print. Technically, I come from a film/wet darkroom background. The education and experience of growing up using film and the wet darkroom, using cold light printers and learning sensitometry was invaluable to me. Today I work in a digital work flow but use everything I learned in film – just transformed. In regards to my equipment, one of the most important/basic pieces of equipment is the beanie I wear on my head. It keeps the hair out of my eyes … and when it starts to rain I put it over the camera to keep it dry.
Q: How have photographers Minor White and Ansel Adams shaped the way you see the world?
A: The first time I laid eyes on the images of Ansel Adams and Minor White (at the age of 17) I was totally blown away. Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., for some weird reason I had never been introduced to the images of the American Southwest before. Today I feel that I owe so much to the great photographers of the past, especially Ansel Adams, for their dedication to the craft and for inspiring me in my late teens. Though I have never met them, their inspiration helped me determine the course my life would take.
Q: Do you see yourself as an artist and environmentalist?
A: I wouldn’t consider myself either a conservationist or an environmentalist. I’m a lot simpler than that; I’m only a photographer. If I’m lucky enough I’d like to be considered a fine art photographer. I’m only trying to show the world as I see it – through images. If the images raise awareness, that would be wonderful. And yes, I am concerned about the environment – especially the American Southwest – but to achieve what I’m setting out to do I need to stay focused. And if one of my images influences someone to reconsider taking their ATV out and riding it over the desert floor… and that saves just one pristine rock/stone or landscape – well then I’ve accomplished something.
Q: Your images are very evocative. Have you always had a passion for photographing nature and landscape?
A: I think yes. I must have. It just cooked in me until I was in my late teens. Today when I’m out in these locations it’s almost like Mother Nature challenges me – and says, ‘Oh yeah, you’re out here for a snapshot? Prove to me that you’re for real.’ And eventually, when I tune it in…she reveals herself. An example of that is when I went out to photograph in Shiprock, New Mexico.
“Shiprock Storm,” Navajo Nation, Nm.
I just remember planning the trip for a few months and eventually taking my family to Farmington, New Mexico, for 10 days. After being out there for eight days, getting a lot of good images but not what I wanted or envisioned I woke up at four in the morning on the ninth day. It was freezing, as it was the end of December. I got in my truck and started driving out to the location which was about 50 miles away. I was in the rain, and snow, and sleet, and in the dark, and I was like, ‘You’re an idiot. What are you doing?’ I had to drive 50 miles and it was like, ‘You’re not gonna get anything. You could be sleeping in a warm bed and relaxing. What are you doing?’ But when I finally got out to the location, there it was…. a lowering cloud was covering the entire structure of Shiprock. I was like, “This is it.” I just stood out there in ankle-deep mud and snow for like, four hours. And as the cloud lifted the light was perfect. It was the image I had envisioned in my mind months earlier when I started to plan the trip.
It showed me that if you’re dedicated, and also somewhat tenacious enough to move through the low points – or in your mind dismisses all the things that are somewhat negative about your abilities – you can accomplish things. And that feeling of wow, I really accomplished this…nobody knows what it took. For me, that’s what my art is about; it’s kind of what I live for.
Q: Are you working on a new project?
A: I plan to continue my work in the Midwest, photographing Storm systems, with my series in the American Southwest and Urban areas. I also would like to research some of the more isolated volcanic landscapes…. and would like to begin focusing on that sometime over the next few years. That would include the landscapes of Iceland, Hawaii, Chile and the western U.S. (California, Oregon and Washington state). But no matter what, I always feel that my best images are still to come.