The Photography Blog: A chat with Sony World Photographer of the Year Mitch Dobrowner
Mitch, you’re the reigning Sony world Photographer of the Year. Congratulations! Where were you when you found out you’d won?
Thank you very much! I was at home when I got an email to say I was shortlisted and that I’d won the landscape category, and the category winners were invited to fly to London for the final awards ceremony. It’s was kind of shocking for me because I really wasn’t expecting anything. There were something like 100,000 entries and I never expected to get picked out and recognised in this way. In fact, I was so convinced my work wouldn’t be recognised I was very reluctant to even go to the awards ceremony. It was on during a prime shooting period for me so it wasn’t until they insisted that I decided to go. When they read my name out I just sat there disbelieving and my wife had to kick me.
What prompted you to enter and how did you settle on your submission?
I’d won other awards and I just thought it would be interesting to see how I got on. As for my pictures, well, the rules said the submissions had to be from images shot in 2010/11 so I needed images in that time frame and I’d done my storm project which had received a good reaction from people, so that was how I made my choice. There were other pictures I’d like to have entered but they were outside the time frame allowed by the competition.
Were you surprised that a collection of landscape photographs won the award? We’ve come to expect prestigious awards going to photographs that depict humanity, both its suffering and its glory, rather than landscapes.
I was definitely surprised to win. Social documentary is the in-thing and there are some great photographers doing it. In fine art terms, landscape photography has been put to the sideline with so much calendar style imagery out there. I think mine [Sony Awards submission] was the only black and white landscape work in there but even then there is a perception that people have seen it all before, going back as far as Ansel Adams of course.
So now you’ve won, what does the award mean to you and your landscape photography?
If I had to summarise what this award means to me it would be this; it’s more of an award for landscape photography and landscape photographers than just a personal award to me and my work. It’s recognised people like me and work like mine that has been marginalised in the ‘serious photography’ world so I’m pleased it’s been recognised in this way.
Your images include rare and unusual weather systems. What did it take to produce these photographs in terms of time and planning?
The foundation of my work is landscape and I’ve always preferred not a sunny day but a landscape in winter, spring or Fall for interesting weather patterns and light. Add to that I’ve always had an affinity with weather and I initially saw a project on Tornado Alley as an experiment to do some research and just go out and see what happened. I hooked up with Roger Hill who runs a storm chasing company and I learnt about my subject and planned my locations with his expertise. I relied on him to get me in and out of the locations. I had previsualised my shots-I always previsualise, I see them in my head first [before I arrive to take the shot] and I said to Roger “What I’m thinking here is Super Cells, spaceships in the sky, beauty in the sky.” And he said to me “Go late in the year when the storms move North towards Nebraska and when they slow down, move less and you get more Super Cells.” On day two of one trip we chased a storm for 400 miles and when we got to the location we could barely stand in 55mph winds but this huge, 65,000 foot vacuum cleaner with lightening going off every couple of seconds was there before us. Suddenly it was no longer an experiment, but a whole new project and the pictures I got were just mind-blowing for me.
I had to adjust from my normal landscape approach where I would get maybe one or two shots over a two week period but I’d have plenty of time to plan and react to the light and weather. In a storm, it’s so different; lots of things are happening all at once and going on around you. The scene in front of you changes every second and you have to react first; focus, compose, expose-it all had to be done so fast and reactively.
What does it take to get these kind of shots?
Well, I had Roger as a guide to get me in and out but we’ve sometimes driven up to 900 miles to capture these things. You just study the weather and if you know there’s a chance of something happening somewhere and it’s eight hours drive away you work back to get up at 4am to arrive in time later that afternoon when it’s due to go off.
So, presumably, sometimes you’d go to all this effort for nothing?
Yes, sometimes we’d drive eight hours and nothing happens or maybe only something happens for 2 minutes. But that’s the fun of it all.
There must be a lot of down time in between these fleeting moments in front of these natural wonders. What do you do?
Yes, there is. I assign a period of a couple of weeks at a time to shoot and in that period we just drive around looking for our subjects, or chill back at the hotel all day waiting for the next one to come along. Overcoming these long periods of inactivity is all part of the challenge.
You shoot in B&W-why do you prefer this medium to colour?
I just see in black and white. I didn’t have a camera until I was 17 and I photographed ‘til I was 22. Then I met my wife and by 26 I had two kids and ran a design business. I didn’t shoot for twenty years. When I picked up the camera again I found it was still just the way I see things. For me, colour is all too familiar and I can’t see it or respond to it creatively. I can’t even identify a lot of colours – I’ve no idea what something terracotta or cyan looks like. It’s not that I’m colour blind, I just don’t identify with colours. When I hear certain music I see in colour, but not when I look at the landscape. So for me, black and white is a natural, logical medium to work in which reflects how I see the world.
Now, I have to ask; film or digital?
I came from a film background; shooting on 10×8 and 5×4 inch film with a view camera. In order to understand my medium I even learnt to make film, that’s important to me as a photographer that I understand my tools. But, using film in this way meant looking at the world upside down on the ground glass screen and all my filtering, metering, developing and printing considerations for the picture had to be figured out and decided there and then in the field. It would be hard for me to do all this with a constantly changing weather system before me. When I started shooting digitally it freed me from these problems; suddenly I had live view and I could see the effect of a red filter in black and white mode and I could see what I was going to come home following the shoot.
So what are your shooting settings on your digital camera?
I shoot in RGB colour and I shoot RAW files. I turn off the saturation when I process the file to a TIFF but the light in my pictures is as shot at the time. I treat the digital sensor as if it were a piece of film; I filter for my scene with traditional filters at the time of capture. I’m conscious that adjustments made later in Photoshop are destructive and so I prefer working in this way. I’m not saying this is the fine art, or purist, way of doing it, I’m just saying it’s my preferred way.
There’s so much scepticism about the integrity of great photography that people sometimes assume a good shot must have been ‘Photoshopped’ to be that good. Does you way of working give you comfort on this issue?
Yes, I mean, it was a stamp of approval for me and my way of working that Sony and National Geographic [who are carrying Mitch’s portfolio in their magazine] have approved my method of working by publishing my work and that’s it’s been photographed ‘my way’. It’s not the only way but it’s my way, and I like the way my work looks and how I create it; it’s my vision and what I saw at the time and it has integrity. The judges checked my RAW files and were happy that they were more or less what I submitted as my entry because I’m doing most of my work ‘in camera.’
Tell us what’s in your kit bag; I’m assuming we’ll find a tripod at the very least?
Yes! I don’t think I’ve ever shot a frame without one, except pictures of my kids. As for my other gear, I have two Canon EOS 5DMKII’s, a 24-105mm and a 70-200mm lens and my filters; reds, blues, greens etc for black and white work. I know primes can be sharper but I have flexibility over my composition with these lenses that is so important to me when I’m faced with a huge weather system, a flexibility not available from primes.
What’s your view on the state of landscape photography today? There are so many great images produced by pros and amateurs alike from all over the world; where can the genre go next in order to evolve and move forward?
I don’t know. We’ve seen so much landscape photography of so many places from so many great photographers. But, you know what, I have a philosophy about this issue which is this; the planet is hurtling through space and we are here for such a brief moment that us and what we’ve built on it is only really temporary. The world is forever changing; it’s a transient place. What I’m saying is there are always new landscapes evolving, fresh angles to shoot them from and new views to photograph that there is always fresh subject matter.
Does the volume of landscape work competing with your for space daunt you?
No. I’m happy doing my thing my way. I don’t get competitive, my photography is my happy place, my art, and not a competitive area of my life.
What are your future plans for your photography?
Well, I have two books out already and I have a third in the offing. I’m off to Iceland and Chili and I still think my best work is yet to come. For me, the world is constantly changing and the way I see it always evolving. I saw the world very differently when I was 15 to the way I do now. Alex, you’re 32 so you’ll see it a certain way to the way I do. As I’m maturing my vision keeps changing as I’m growing up so I don’t think my photography will stagnate but move on. I’m just interested to see where it will go. I remember an old, very successful pro, critiquing my work and he saw how my work changed over time. He said his work was the same, stylistically, as it was forty years ago and that made absolutely no sense to me at all. I think when you no longer change and evolve you must be ready to die, when the work stagnates it’s time to move on. I think the key when thinking about the future direction we take our art is to never lose sight of the picture because that’s all that matters. It should be the picture we present to people that does the talking about us, not the other way round.
Have Your Say
What do you think about Mitch’s winning photographs?
Do you think he has given landscape photography a welcome boost in profile or do you think that, however beautiful it is, it should play second fiddle to social documentary and photojournalism?
We’re you surprised to find that so much of Mitch’s work is done in camera, relying on very little postproduction work?
All photographs courtesy & Copyright of Mitch DobrownerTagged in: art, landscape photography, Mitch Dobrowner, national geographic, photography, Social documentary, Sony world Photographer of the Year
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