Mitch Dobrowner

Mitch Dobrowner


Photographer: Los Angeles

A moment in time. One second. One hour. One year. One thousand years. Relatively speaking, they can all be very long, or very short. The certainty is they will all come. And they will all go. And if that’s the case, what’s the best way to go about preserving such a thing? We can use our eyes. Our ears. Our memories. But how much can we really capture?

     In the year 2005, Mitch Dobrowner picked up a camera for the first time in almost two decades and accompanied a friend to Death Valley. Mind blown by his surroundings, he began shooting. And it wasn’t long before the experience would take a firm hold. For the next three years Mitch would take six additional trips all over the Southwest, capturing moments like this:

Mesa Wall no.2

“It was like,
‘Leaving. See you guys, I’m out of here.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I don’t know, I’ll see you. I’ll call you when I get there.’

     Each time he’d return home with another group of astounding images. And what staggered Mitch about the landscapes staggers us, too. Just look at them. There’s an undeniable allure. An impossible scale. An otherworldliness. And perhaps especially for those of us who live our every day far from such locations, there’s almost a lusting to be there. Think about being underneath such a wide sky, lying down and stretching out along the earth, losing the notion of schedules, clocks, routine. It’s a longing for something elemental. Something that time can’t quite measure. It’s a concept Mitch transfers to his home of Los Angeles.

Stone Butterfly

“I’d love to have a time-lapse camera of LA and just show what it’s like here now…that everybody buys their house, they think they own the house, it’s theirs, and they’re real proud of it, this and that. But the reality is you’re just borrowing that, and a hundred years from now it won’t be there anymore. Something else will be there. So if you do a time-lapse of LA you’d see that everything we have is just temporary, and even when you go out to the Southwest it’s just in that moment of time that it looks like that. It’s not going to always be like that.”

     Three years in the Southwest and plenty of ruminations on the fleeting nature of the world would stir ideas for a new photographic adventure. In 2009 Mitch would set off to capture a phenomenon even more transient and uncontained than landscapes – he’d begin chasing storms.


     And even more than the landscapes, these are the images that floor me. The skies. The clouds. They’re just massive. Fear inspiring. Like nothing else, these are the scenes that remind me of how insignificant we really are. Just look at Mesocyclone. That lightning bolt to the right – that frightfully destructive bolt – is as thin as a thread. What does that say for the enormous plume of gray on the left? It swirls and billows, pulling in more and more dense, dark energy, just waiting to consume the rest of the image. It’s an intense experience.

“When I started the storm project I wanted the iconic tornado shot, but I was also just trying to show that these things existed out there. The whole idea is to capture the feeling of it, not in a calendar-type picture or just a nice snapshot, but to actually try to capture the feeling of the place.”

     He sure is successful. Keep looking through Mitch’s work. Some clouds almost feel like solid matter. And how are the contrasts of light and dark even possible? Have you ever seen clouds like these? It’s being excited and amazed and terrified, all at once. You want to run from it, but then you almost want to run to it. Or at least stay close enough to take in the action.

Rope Out

“When you’re shooting a storm it’s this amazing thing in front of you, and it’s almost like shooting a sporting event as much as a landscape. It bridges that because it changes every second. Things are going to happen all around you. It’s not a static thing where you just wait for the light to be right and sit in front of it all day. You just never know what’s going to happen and when.”

     Twenty years prior, the task of gaining photographic knowledge provided a similar unknown. Mitch was producing meritorious work even then, but like an apprentice to a master painter who’d need to learn how to stretch canvases and mix oil into pigments to create paint, he would travel to from the East coast to the West coast looking for just the right jobs that would allow him to better learn all the aspects of his trade. He’d work as an assistant to influential American photographer Pete Turner. He’d find employment in sensitometry – scientifically exploring the physical and chemical components of film, and then manufacturing it by coating acetate with gelatin and silver nitrate. He’d even find a position with a company that would allow him, after hours, to use their film processor to develop all the film he’d shot. He’d tell me about condenser enlargers versus cold-light enlargers, about building his own darkroom, and the importance of it all.

“It gave me a perspective on film where I wasn’t intimidated by it because I knew all about it. I knew how it was made, I knew the science behind it, I knew what a densitometer was, I knew the readings. It’s a little bit like how I’m scared of heights and went skydiving. It was somewhat of a traumatic experience the first time [laughs] – I just dove out, luckily the parachute opened. It was a static line at the time, it wasn’t like they put someone on your back. But I kind of always faced my fear, or invest the time, want to know what I’m doing.”

     So when he began shooting again in 2005 he’d invest the time to learn his modern tool, the digital camera; taking it apart, exploring the sensors, learning how and why the filters were combined as they were.

“From the point of any artist, I think you need to get over your tools and be comfortable with the tools you use so you can just do the art. I ended up understanding the tool, and then I got over it. But it took me a couple of years to really, really get to the point where now when I go out it’s just an extension. I don’t think about it that much."

Arm of God

"People always ask what kind of camera I use and I’ll tell you what I use and how I use it, but it’s not really that. I think the camera is just part of the whole process; it’s one intricate piece of the puzzle.”

     Other pieces of that puzzle are much less technical, much more inspired. It’s in the way Mitch will visualize potential scenes long before picking up the camera. Only after ideas take shape will he travel out into the field, and even then, capturing those moments only happens when it all feels just right. And that can take time.

“I’ve never been one to go out there to drive around and take a couple of snapshots and come back. Usually I’m out there for days. The first day I might actually just be detoxing from LA, 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.”

     It only makes sense – in order to capture the true feeling of these scenes you’ve got to be there in more than a physical way. And fortunately for Mitch, as for any of us, that internal, spiritual connection to the location does come. The thing is, along with that connection comes a more tangible, physical challenge.

“You go out there and all of a sudden the light’s starting to change and you realize that it’s a four-hour hike back, and you’re by yourself and have a limited amount of water and food and have to scramble back in the dark. And I remember going through all this…how am I gonna even see? So lots of times it’s to stay there and get that shot. And that’s landscape photography. You have to wait for those moments that are just the right moments.”

     And that’s what pleases me the most – after all the studying, the planning, the visualizing, the traveling – it culminates with Mitch’s deepest challenge: the aspect of simply being out there, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, oftentimes with nothing but his thoughts, acclimating, soul searching, surviving.
Shiprock Storm

“It’s almost like Mother Nature is saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re out here for a snapshot? Prove to me that you’re for real.’ And eventually if you’re there, when you really tune it in…that’s what happened with Shiprock. I just remember I was out there by myself, and I was out there for eight days, getting lots of good stuff but not what I wanted. And on that eighth day I woke up at four in the morning. It was freezing, freezing rain, it was the end of December, and I got in my truck and started driving out to the location. 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 to the location, and it was like, ‘You’re not gonna get anything. You could be sleeping in bed and relaxing. What are you doing?’ But when I got out there the cloud was actually just covering the rock and 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 so fulfilling for me at the end of it. It was just me. Myself. Middle of New Mexico. Nobody around. I could have just quit at that point, you know?"

"So it’s fulfilling that if you’re dedicated, and also somewhat tenacious enough to move through the low points – or in your mind dismiss 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.”

{March 2012}
Images c/o Mitch Dobrowner