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Chromosphere, Green Grass, South Dakota, 2012 from Storms, photographs by Mitch Dobrowner (Aperture, 2013) © Mitch Dobrowner

LA photographer chases life, death of SD’s storms

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By TODD EPP

Northern Plains News Service

They’re born, they live violent lives on the South Dakota prairie, and then they die.

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A fine art photographer from Los Angeles captures their lives in black and white.

Mitch Dobrowner, 56, 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 — 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. Other upper Midwest 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 on 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 Poinsett 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 (photo) I remember the experience,” Dobrowner said. “(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 a 25-year hiatus in 2005, Dobrowner became interesting photographing storms. After traveling 50,000 to 60,000 miles chasing storms, he says fallen in love with South Dakota and the state’s residents.

“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.

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