For the past decade, photographer Mitch Dobrowner has spent a few weeks every summer pursuing extreme weather across the midwestern United States with veteran storm chaser Roger Hill, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has witnessed more tornadoes (more than 650) than anyone in history. During their first outing, in 2009, Dobrowner and Hill spotted a high-precipitation supercell thunderstorm in the Black Hills of South Dakota at noon and followed it all day in Hill's eight-seater van until giving up the chase at midnight in Valentine, Nebraska.
"It looked like a spaceship," recalls Hill, who runs Silver Lining Tours , which offers 11 storm-chasing outings each year. "Hail the size of grapefruits, lightning strikes every three or four seconds."
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Dobrowner's black and white images of that megastorm are some of the most spectacular in his ever-expanding portfolio of extreme weather photography. Although tornadoes get all the attention on TV, Dobrowner is more interested in supercells, massive storm systems that sometimes spawn tornadoes. "I see them as living things," he says. "Some are gorgeous and beautiful, some are tornadic and violent. And the longer they last the more form they take. Eventually, they mature and die. So I try to take a portrait, almost like with a person."
Unlike some storm chasers, Dobrowner isn't a thrill-seeker. He wants to capture the majesty, not the danger, of extreme meteorological events. "I know they're destructive at times, but I don't want to photograph that," he says. "I'll leave that to others who are really good at that. I see them as beautiful phenomena."
Riding along with an expert like Hill allows Dobrowner to focus on his craft. "There's a lot of chaos going on—there's wind, there's lightning, there's noise, hail. And the composition's constantly changing, so you have to really focus on what's going on around you," Dobrowner says. "I'm just listening for when Roger says, 'We gotta get out of here.'"
Growing up on Long Island, Dobrowner says he had no real conception of such severe weather events until he left home at 21 to drive across the American Southwest. Even today, after years of shooting storms, he sometimes finds himself awestruck by the scale of nature's wrath. "It's like being in front of King Kong," he says. "I don't get scared—I feel kind of honored to be standing in front of it. Sometimes I don't even photograph the storm because I just want to enjoy it."
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