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L.A. Photographer Chronicles Life and Death of S.D.’s Storms in Black and White

Veil, Buffalo, South Dakota, 2011 from Storms
Veil, Buffalo, South Dakota, 2011 from Storms, photographs by Mitch Dobrowner (Aperture, 2013) © Mitch Dobrowner

They’re born, they live violent lives on the South Dakota prairie, and then they die. And a fine art photographer from Los Angeles, Calif. captures their lives in black and white.

Mitch Dobrowner, 56, a native, has been chronicling the “lives” of massive thunderstorm in the American West and Plains—including South Dakota for nearly five years.

Some of his South Dakota storm photographs—including a photo of a thunderstorm forming at Lake Poinsett, S.D., will be featured in his upcoming photo book, Storms, published by Aperture magazine.

He’s taken other dramatic photos near Green Grass, Timber Lake and Buffalo, S.D.  Other upper midwestern or plains states where he’s captured storms are Minnesota, North Dakota and Wyoming.

“The most interesting thing to me is that these storms are like the birth of a person and the death of a person,” Dobrowner said. “During a bright day, sunny, hot, humid day, they’re born, they can be violent, they mature into a form and then they die.

The life span of the storm “person” can be brief—15 minutes—or lengthy—15 hours.

“It’s almost like capturing a portrait of a person,” Dobrowner said. “It’s never going to be that same picture again. There might be storms over that same location, but it will never look the same.”

The “birth” of the Lake Poinsett photo started in Rapid City July 17, 2010. Dobrowner says he tries to map out the day to find where large storms are going to form then follow them to their “death.”

“We probably had 15 minutes to get the shot,” Dobrowner said. “It was a storm where we actually had some time. Sometimes we have minutes. It’s rare to have 15 minutes.”

The artist adds that he understands the danger, destruction and human misery the storms can cause. He says sometimes there’s a homestead in the photo that may get hit by the storm. And the Lake Pointsett storm was a close call.

“That storm almost dropped a tornado on our heads, but it was a totally beautiful storm,” Dobrowner said about the late afternoon storm.

Dobrowner also said capturing the Lake Poinsett shot and other storms is an exciting mix of photographic styles and methods“It was almost a hybrid of a landscape and a sporting event,” Dobrowner said. “That picture (at Lake Poinsett) existed for a few seconds and then the composition completely changed. I have to really stay focused.”

When talking to Dobrowner about photographing these storms, he uses the terms “surreal,” “awesome” and “other worldly.” But he also finds the experience deeply personal.

“I’ve chased a storm from Sturgis to the Badlands to Valentine,” Dobrowner said. “It was almost like a dream, life changing. They are amazing, phenomenal things I’m in awe of.”

And that feeling is true for all his storm photos.

“Every one (photo) I remember the experience,” Dobrowner said. “They (the photographs) are like your children. It expresses how I felt. I can remember standing there and capture how I felt standing in front of that storm. It was a real event, a documentary, a portrait of the storm.”

After picking up his photography after about 25 year hiatus in 2005, Dobrowner became interesting photographing storms. After traveling 50-60,000 miles chasing storms, he says fallen in love with South Dakota and South Dakotans.

“I thought if I had more years in my life, if I could be 25 again and have 50 years to live, I’d like to live in the Rapid City area,” Dobrowner said. “The diversity of the landscape–the Black Hills, the Badlands, the plains. It’s some of my favorite area in the country.”

With Ansel Adams’ black and white photography books as his “bibles,” his digital Canon 5D Mark II, the camera lens at the f8 “sweet spot” and always a tripod, Dobrowner is ready to capture the moment. Dobrowner says he probably hasn’t taken a single shot without a tripod except those of his children in years.

The tripod is a necessity because of the photographic settings and the weather. The shutter speeds can be slow, depending up the light conditions—and the wind—sometimes gusting over 50 miles per hour—with Dobrowner, as he says, “on top of it”–trying to hold the camera and tripod still.

“I’m not thinking about my camera,” Dobrowner says when he’s shooting. “It is an extension of my eyes and hands. To me it’s like a paintbrush. I might have a favorite paint brush but the camera is an instrument to express.”

As beautiful as Dobrowner’s photographs are when viewed online at http://mitchdobrowner.com, they are composed and shot with the idea they will be blown up, printed and viewed in a gallery. In the case of the Lake Pointsett photo, it has been enlarged to 34 by 50 inches.

Besides the upcoming book Storm—Dobrowner’s third–and his website, Dobrowner has two exhibitions of his works—at the photo-eye Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. and Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. Storm will contain 50-52 of Dobrowner’s works, including some of his South Dakota photographs and will sell in the $50 range.

Storm Over Field, Lake Pointsett, South Dakota, 2010 from Storms
Storm Over Field, Lake Pointsett, South Dakota, 2010 from Storms, photographs by Mitch Dobrowner (Aperture, 2013) © Mitch Dobrowner
Saucer, Field, Timber Lake, South Dakota, 2012 from Storms
Saucer, Field, Timber Lake, South Dakota, 2012 from Storms, photographs by Mitch Dobrowner (Aperture, 2013) © Mitch Dobrowner
Chromosphere, Green Grass, South Dakota, 2012 from Storms
Chromosphere, Green Grass, South Dakota, 2012 from Storms, photographs by Mitch Dobrowner (Aperture, 2013) © Mitch Dobrowner

Note: Mitch Dobrowner’s photos are used with permission of the artist and Aperture magazine. Any republication must contain the captions as written for each photograph. Only news uses of the images are permitted.

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