Photographer’s Eye: Jason Persoff the ‘Storm Doctor’

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Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

He works as an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, but he’s also a photographer known as the Storm Doctor – a storm chaser shooting images of nature bursting at the seams. His name is Jason Persoff and his imagery and reflections are every bit as extraordinary as his nickname

To build out the Science collection I was creating, what I needed was an extreme weather photographer. Sure you can find people that might come across a twister and take a photo of it, but I needed someone for who this was a passion, that they went looking for the storms, putting their body on the line, not your archetypal lifestyle photographer. I came across a picture of a super cell, and my jaw hit the floor. It was credited to the ‘Storm Doctor’, a name that would have piqued my attention even if the image was average. I went on the hunt and eventually came across his website, full of images packed with drama, atmosphere, and beautifully framed. Showing the site to my colleagues, they all elicited the same reaction, one of wonder. It’s a pleasure to work with Jason, his enthusiasm for what he does rubs off. I know as i write this introduction, Jason is out looking for storms. Can’t wait to see the results.

A shot of a single object that expresses a powerful memory/event

On May 31, 2010, Memorial Day here in the US, I was entreated to witness one of the most spectacular tornadoes I have ever seen. The tornado formed in the High Plains of Southeast Colorado – sunlight behind the tornado resulted in the tornado looking like it was smooth enough to have a sheen. The contrast and dynamic range of the visual spectacle is hard to capture on film, but somehow it worked perfectly. The tornado morphed many times, showing many moods, and lasted over 40 minutes – staying out over open land and renting no destruction.  It was also a spectacular chase strategy my partner and I used that day making it that much more satisfying and enriching. It represented the pinnacle of storm chasing for me, and it’s a day I look back on frequently. The power of the event was the simultaneous overlay of power and prose; darkness and light; grand and small; and evanescent and spiritual.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

Three books that have inspired you?

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. This book captures the imagination of locations that seemingly exist in substance but are just out of reach of the reader. I try to envision my cloudscapes as similar except that they are visions of reality that look impossible or ethereal.

The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.  Is any explanation necessary here? This is a great introductory primer on clouds.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.  A chance to look deeper at the nature of the universe. Profound in scientific wonder of the what we humans know (for now) about the foundations of everything in existence.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

Favourite photo you have taken?

I’m pretty bad at narrowing it down. So I’ll answer in 3 flavors, based on mood and composition. On a chase in Southern Colorado my chase partner and I ended up stranded in a field overnight due to the road we’d been on turning entirely to deep, sticky mud. But as the sun faded from the sky, I noticed an isolated tree in a sea of beautiful green vegetation. The colors of the sky and the cloudscapes came together spectacularly in rich, warms and cools – something I would have missed had the road been passable. This picture captures the spiritual fulfillment I obtain on a chase of being one with nature. It underscores the fickleness of the moment – 10 minutes on either side of the shot, the field didn’t have this look. But I was given a single chance to be there at that time and capture it forever. It’s a humbling feeling.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

The second photo is my favorite lightning shot. For me, shooting lightning is based on the principles of patience (long exposures) and understanding of the anatomy of a storm. Storms, like people, have unique anatomical and physiological processes. When I understand what an individual storm is doing, and can recognize how it’s developing, I can pinpoint where the lightning will likely drop in my frame. My favorite time to take lightning photos is about 15-30 minutes after sunset when colors of the sunset are almost completely faded from sight. Opening up my aperture and with sufficient exposure times of up to 30-60 seconds, I can often fill in the landscape with the remaining ambient light, and if I’m lucky, a strike (or many) will fall in frame. In this case, I was able to get a bolt to fall right into the frame of a sunset illuminating the twin rails of a train track. The color, tone, and play of smooth versus sharp of the image has always made this a near-perfect lightning photo.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

Last, I offer the raw power of a storm. One of the widest tornadoes in history was the 2.4 mile wide Hallam, Nebraska tornado in May, 2004. The tornado was too wide and too dangerous to photograph, but the rear end of the storm offered a very powerful image of the updraft shooting up from nearly the ground level and literally ricocheting off the upper atmosphere. If you look at the top of the photo, you can see ripples from the storm hitting the upper atmosphere. The lone farmhouse makes this shot capture the ferocity of the storm and the dynamic nature the weather that day.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

Favourite artist/photographer/image-maker?

Hands down, it’s Mike Hollingshead, a fellow chaser with a spectacular eye for capturing the dynamic nature of the sky.  Some of his images have graced National Geographic and other major magazines. As a storm aficionado, there are so many gems in each of Mike’s photos, it’s hard to explain just how miraculous his captures are.  Sometimes we’ve been on the same storm, but his talent with the camera just flattens my images completely. His website (extremeinstability.com) refers to a meteorological phenomenon that makes storms so powerful.  Appropriate given the power of his photos.

What is so compelling about chasing storms and documenting them with your camera?

Appropriately, people have an inherent fear in being in the path of severe weather. Since severe weather is often dreaded for the destruction it causes, it’s not hard to understand why most people would rather not be connected to it at all. But, what gets lost in all that is that people personify weather into being an evil force with intent. From a scientific standpoint, that’s obviously not what’s happening, but I respect why people would feel that way.

I look at Nature from a very different view. Severe storms are fleeting moments of spectacular complexity. When painted in the sky over landscapes, they turn whole canvases of earth and sky into fluid images of a scale that rivals imagination. Many of the storms I chase are taller than Mt. Everest and span many miles in width. I feel connected to these storms viscerally and want others to see the storms for the natural beauty they represent. Due to their transience, I feel responsible in a way to capture what I’m seeing so others can feel the wonderment I have when staring at the sky.

Funny enough, so many storms have certain personalities, that it is not uncommon among storm chasers to recognize another photographer’s pictures as being taken at a certain location on a certain day due to the telltale features that were unique to these storms. Again: that is how unique each storm is. And given their uniqueness, isn’t that alone the motivation needed to capture them on film? They are endangered species, living only in flashes of an instant.

Are there any rules you have developed to get the best picture, and to keep yourself safe?

As I’ve gotten older, I am much more vigilant about storm safety. This year, one of my chaser friends, a man I’d admired for decades and who helped me blossom as a chaser, Tim Samaras, was killed – along with his son and his long-time chase partner – while performing scientific research on a chase this past May. Even before Tim’s death, I have become a very big proponent of safety in my photography. While most storms obey certain fundamental rules based on well-understood meteorological science, they still offer intensely random dangers that cannot be overstated and cannot be predicted.

While many people like the close-up tornado photos, they not only are very risky to take, they also emphasize very little of what makes a storm miraculous to me. So, I intentionally try to be a mile or more from these storms, and recognize that much of what makes a storm photo really sing involves capturing scale within the shot. I love windmills, out buildings, rolling hills, and stunning landscapes to help frame the shot. Often I search out parts of the storm with the most dramatic color palette (believe it or not, there is an art to that as well). I also tend to chase the most visually dynamic portions of the storm – where clouds take on intense emotion and action, or where they can be framed by lightning. But one of the other most important rules I follow is: if I like what I’m seeing, stop and shoot it immediately. Because the fleeting nature of the cloudscape means I have only seconds before the magic is lost.

What makes a great storm photo?

A good storm photo, to me, is the blend of emotion, riot of color, dynamic cloudscapes, and perspective to induce awe in others. If they can also have scientific import, then I’m usually pretty jazzed as well. I’ve taken so many photos over the years, but the ones that do this well are rare to find. Also, I enjoy contrasting mankind’s creations versus Nature’s to give perspective of power.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

How much post-production goes into the imagery?

I’ve tried to stay very true to the visual range of the actual shot. Occasionally I’ll use a filter to add color that was visible, but didn’t capture well. I do enjoy using Nik Software to help spot sharpen some cloud features. The problem with storms is the vast lighting challenges these shots pose: often lighting varies many stops, and it is nearly impossible to capture that dynamic range in photos.  Since clouds move very fast in severe weather, HDR isn’t my favorite technique, so I usually try to capture the lighting and dynamics in a shot that captures the structure. Then I’ll work to bring that out in post-production while not adding anything much to the photos. But I try to avoid making the photos into art since I want the storms’ voices to be captured in my images as closely as possible

Any close calls?

Yes, especially early on in my chasing career when the internet didn’t exist. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started out, and had several close encounters with tornadoes and hail the size of softballs that I’d just as soon not repeat. As I grew more cognizant of storm anatomy and physiology, and have much better, near-real time data, I can make much more responsible decisions as a chaser. But over-dependence on technology is equally mired in danger too. Sometimes, chasers may think they’re plotting a course based on “real time” radar images overlayed on GPS. But, in fact, the image they may be seeing may be 30 minutes or 40 minutes old (wireless data can be hampered by the severe weather we’re chasing or cellular towers may be destroyed by winds/tornadoes along the route). That makes some chasers feel more emboldened that they can circumnavigate portions of a storm by GPS, but the data may be so old, that in fact they’re actually navigating right into the maelstrom. As I grow as a chaser, I have to always be mindful of “old school” storm anatomy blended with new technology in order to chase safely.  That strategy saved my life in Joplin, Missouri, in May, 2011.  My chase partner and I (both of us are physicians) were then in a unique position to help save lives immediately in the wake of an EF-5 tornado that leveled a substantial portion of the town (see my blog).

You are Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at University of Colorado, when you are not Storm Chasing or teaching Medicine, what other kinds of photographs do you take?

I do like to take landscape photos even when the clouds aren’t stormy. I love nature photography of all kinds, but for whatever reason, my eye is most attuned to storms and cloudscapes. But I enjoy candids of the family, of course.  But you won’t see any of those published – yet, they’re there also taken in the same spirit as my storm photos. They are fleeting moments in time that I want to hold onto forever.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

Given the history of scientific illustration, anatomy, research, do scientists bring a different eye to photography?

I can only speak for myself. But you’ll notice that I see tremendous parallels to anatomy and physiology to the process of capturing storms in photography. Sometimes I take photos that only other weather geeks could possibly find beautiful because I want to capture the process of storm genesis I’m witnessing. For many others, these just look like clouds, but for me, I’m trying to teach other chasers (including my kids – chasers-in-training, all three!) how to interpret the skies.  It’s the joy of getting to show someone what I mean when I describe a cloud feature, or the import of which way the winds are blowing at the surface.  Unfortunately for others, I get rather giddy teaching, showing, and explaining my joy for the science behind the photos. It’s the thrill of connectedness to Nature – I’m getting to see “behind the curtains” of a tremendous show. That’s how science always has been for me.  That’s why I chase storms. That’s why I’m in medicine. I get to be part of an amazingly intricate flow of life and atmosphere.

Photographer Jason Persoff

Photographer Jason Persoff

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