One day in 1982, Mitch Dobrowner was driving his green Toyota Corolla—“an awesome car”—north along the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. He’d been living out of the car for the previous four years, driving around photographing the grand landscapes of Arizona, New Mexico and California, and had recently settled in the city. Driving over the crest of a hill, he saw the sight which was the inspiration for the photographs on these pages—the San Fernando Valley spread out below him, surrounded by the San Gabriel Mountains. Then, while he ran an industrial-design business and raised three children, he stopped taking photographs for more than 20 years.
“The image I captured back then has always been on my mind, and I’m trying to recreate it here,” he says now, having taken up photography again in 2005. Since then, he’s built a career on photographs of America’s great outdoors, most recently as it is ravaged by storms. His pictures of tornadoes, super-cells and lightning, taken in North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Texas, won him the Sony world photographer of the year award in April. But even when he photographs Los Angeles, the natural world is in charge. These are images of a metropolis of 13m people held by its setting, overpowered and made to look impermanent.
They were taken within five miles of Dobrowner’s house in LA’s Studio City, but he’s always looking for shots where you don’t know where you are. These pictures aren’t about the here and now. “I think we just borrow what we have. In 500 years in California the houses will probably be gone and something else will stand there. When I take these pictures, I am asking what this place will look like when we aren’t here.” Have you ever seen the Hollywood sign perched on its little hill look so meek and forgotten about, or a power station so powerless?
Growing up in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Dobrowner was more interested in motorcycles and trouble than in photography. To keep him on the straight and narrow, his father bought him a camera. Then he discovered Ansel Adams. “I didn’t even know who he was. I’d never seen dramatic landscapes like that on the east coast,” he says. “I had to see it for myself.” Adams gave him not just a subject, but a sense of craft and meticulousness too. When he gets a new camera, Dobrowner will take it apart and put it back together again—“it has to be an extension of my arm”. He used to make his own film. When he started making photographs digitally, it took three years and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of ink and paper before he produced prints that satisfied him.
His method now is a combination of planning and serendipity. Most of all, it’s about a state of mind. “Taking photographs is like seeing in a dark room,” he says. “When you walk in, you don’t see anything, but when you’re there for a period of time, you can see clearly.” In 2010 he went with his son to take pictures in Utah. After working in sub-zero temperatures for two weeks, he still hadn’t taken the photo he’d been hoping for. On the way back to Los Angeles, he needed to pee, so he pulled over and got out. Then he heard his son calling him. “I hiked over the hill and there it was. And I was, like, ‘holy shit!’”
He shot a winter storm in the Black Rock Hills, an arresting image of both violence and stillness. There may not be a city there, but among his photographs of la, it looks as if there might have been or yet could be. It’s a picture of both before and after, and of what endures. ~ SIMON WILLIS