Mitch Dobrowner is a black and white photographer who’s photography makes me think of eerie, distant places. He seeks to describe the world through his photography and surely, in his very own way, he has described a place of dark beauty. Featured in 2012, here is his interview:
My name is Mitch Dobrowner, born on Long Island, New York, currently living in Los Angeles, California. I have a wife, 3 kids a dog and a rotten cat that I love.
Tell us about the most impressive place you have photographed recently.
The most impressive location I’ve ever photographed has to be Shiprock New Mexico (USA), though there were others that came a close 2nd (ie: the Valentine Nebraska storm being another). But Shiprock was very special to me.
Before I left to see it I had seen images of Shiprock before but I never saw the image I had in my mind. Though I hadn’t seen the formation in person, this rock touched something deep inside me. I think it was because I knew that it is the spiritual center of the Navajo Nation, or maybe it was because it is the remnant of an ancient volcano. But this combination of history and geology ignited something inside me. So I traveled to the Four Corners area of New Mexico with my family to photograph it.When I arrived (in Farmington NM) I was totally overwhelmed by my first distant sighting of this otherworldly formation. Over the next ten days I woke up at ungodly hours to drive long distances in order to arrive at first light, and then left after sundown each day in order to catch the last light driving over rocks, in mud, snow, rain, and sand. As we arrived in late December, the weather conditions made for cold/freezing, moody, atmospheric photographs, as well as giving me frozen fingers and toes. I spent the first eight days driving, scouting, and sitting quietly in the area surrounding Shiprock. It also seemed like the more time I spent in the area, the more I knew that I would need to be patient despite the cold. The morning of the eighth day I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and got into my truck in the freezing rain and snow – with a warm cup of coffee. From Farmington, the drive to Shiprock was 50 miles one way. It was snowing, and then raining, dark, and freezing. The thermometer on my truck read between two and twelve degrees above zero (Fahrenheit). For a few minutes there I remember thinking I was nuts. As this was the fifth time in eight days that I was making this trip (during this visit), my mind kept saying, “Why are you going out again when you could have stayed with your family in a warm bed? You’re an idiot. You’re not going to get anything.” But I felt driven, as I wanted to capture the image I had driven 800 miles from California to get.
When I finally arrived at Shiprock that morning it was approx 5:45 a.m. The sun was just coming up and the Shiprock was behind a wall of clouds. When I finally stopped and stepped out with my camera and tripod, I sank ankle deep into cold mud. But when I looked up I knew that what was about to happen in front of me was the thing I had come all this way for.
For the next three hours I sat in front of Shiprock…not a soul around, and I felt like we had a conversation. There are the times when it’s almost like Mother Nature is says, ‘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.
My hope is that the image presented helps communicate what I saw and the humility I felt while photographing this amazing structure.
You took a break from photography for a while, did you find the down time was beneficial? When you returned to photography how had your eye changed? How had your work changed?
I think the time was beneficial as during the years I think my eye and vision has become more focused… just as my life has. Today photography is my way to communicate how I feel without words. When I’m out shooting things seem simple again, time slows down and the world around me gets quiet. It’s then that I’m able to focus in a manner that allows me to connect with my imagination. Those moments are how I’ve learned to ‘still my soul’; it’s my happy place.
It’s about the only times where I’m alone and can hear my heart beating again. I think you have to love what you decide to shoot. The images need to come from deep inside your heart… and I finally found that way, through my photography, to connect and ground myself.
You have listed Both Minor White and Ansel Adams as influences, what did you see in their work that was so impressive? What of their influence do you see in your own work? How have you taken their legacies and advanced them?
Well, the first time I laid eyes on the images of Ansel Adams and Minor White (at the age of 17) I was totally blown away. Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., for some weird reason I had never been introduced to the images of the American Southwest before. Today I feel that I owe so much to those great photographers of the past, especially Ansel Adams, for his dedication to the craft and for inspiring me in my late teens. Though I have never met him, their inspiration helped me determine the course my life would take.
In regards to the ‘now’, yes… I hope that I’m able to advance on their legacies, but that is not my intent as that’s a pretty tall order. And though I’m happy about some of the accolades I had in the past, the part I like the most is the recognition of black & white landscape photography as a force again. And that’s not for me, but for the thousands+ of great landscape photographers in the world. I think people sometimes think that the work of Ansel, Minor White or Edward Weston were the end of the era (of great black and white landscape photography) but I believe that there are others out there that can expand on their point of vision and foundation. And I know that this is what Ansel and the others would want.
Why have you chosen to shoot in black and white? What characteristics and emotions are enhanced with black and white photography? How is black and white photography limiting (besides the obvious)?
Its pretty simple to me; color work seems too realistic and ‘every day’ to me. It’s what I see every time I look around. I see it through my eyes all the time.
B&W interprets reality the way I happen to “see” and feel. My wife (who is a designer and painter) says I’m color blind. But I’m not – I just know the names of all the colors. How do you describe terracotta if you don’t know the name of that color? And the only time I see in color is when I’m listening to music. I see music/orchestrations in their various tones. Not sure why… but its what I see. At the end of the day the final image is all that is important.
Are you spiritual?
No, I don’t label things…. I just know what I feel. My reality is I’m a lot simpler than that; I’m only a photographer. If I’m lucky enough I’d like to be considered a fine art photographer. I’m only trying to show the world as I see it – through images. If the images raise awareness, that would be wonderful. And yes, I am concerned about the environment – especially the American Southwest – but to achieve what I’m setting out to do I need to stay focused. And if one of my images influences someone to reconsider taking their ATV out and riding it over the desert floor… and that saves just one pristine rock/stone or landscape – well then I’ve accomplished something.
How do you emotionally respond when you find a new location to photograph? How do you hear about the different locations that you’ve visited to photograph?
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. In order to capture the true feeling of these scenes I’ve got to be there in more than a physical way. And fortunately, for me, that internal, spiritual connection to the location does come. The thing is, along with that connection comes a more tangible, physical challenge.
I’ll sometime go out to some isolated location in the desert southwest 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? And that’s what pleases me the most – after all the studying, the planning, the visualizing, the traveling – it culminates with this challenge: the aspect of simply being out there, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, oftentimes with nothing but my own thoughts, acclimating, soul searching, surviving. Those times are when I can hear my heart beat again. So it’s fulfilling to know 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.
Do you have a specific time of day that you photograph during? What different effects and emotions are evoked at different times of the day?
For me, I love spending time in that environment, learning about it – seeing in in different light and weather conditions. It may sounds strange to some but I need to talk to the subject when I’m shooting…. in my own way and with my own voice. When I get to that place I know things will happen; it’s kind of like walking into a dark room and not being able to see – and the more time you’re there the more you can see. It’s then that I just enjoy sitting back and waiting for nature to show me what she’s got. I live for that.
Where do you want to visit next?
I miss the Southwest tremendously. Utah, New Mexico, Arizona is where my heart truly is. I can feel my anticipation building as I get set to go back out there. It’s a hard feeling to describe so I try to just describe it in my images. This next year I also have a trip planned for Iceland, as volcanic landscapes have always intrigued me. And of course I will continue spending time each year photographing storm systems (they have so many facets),