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Books: Eric Meola Captures the "Fierce Beauty" of Great Plains Storms

By David Schonauer   Monday November 18, 2019


Storm chasing has become a business and art form.

But what is it about catastrophic weather that enthralls us?

“You feel like you’re at the beginning of what Creation must have been like. It’s very elemental,” says photographer Eric Meola. “You look up in the sky, and the clouds look like they’re spiraling up into this infinite universe “You see a cobalt blue sky turn jet black in just minutes, and you hear this sound. It’s eerie, like an electronic soundtrack — phssshhh — but it’s not the wind you’re hearing. It’s the globules of hail up in the air, smashing against each other. They could come down and kill you, but they stay suspended up there because of the terrific centrifugal force of the storm system. The first time people witness a storm like that, they are in awe. They are completely silent. Finally they start talking in hushed tones.”

The first time Meola came into the presence of a tornado was seven years ago. Acclaimed as both a commercial and fine-art photographer, Meola is noted for his powerful color work, not to mention his photographs of Bruce Springsteen — he shot the iconic cover of the “Born to Run” album. In 2012, he booked a trip with an Arlington, TX-based storm-chasing company called Tempest Tours. He’s gone back every spring since, traveling more than 25,000 across seven states in search of storms.

The result is a book, Fierce Beauty: Storms of the Great Plains, out this month, which features more than 100 of his photographs of storms. Tomorrow, November 19, Meola will be discussing the book and his fascination with storms and the enduring landscape of the Great Plain at the Rizzoli Bookstore, 1133 Broadway, New York, NY.

Meola fell in love with the flat landscape of the Great Plains as a teenager, when he took a road trip there with his parents. (“My father let me drive the car for the first time, and the speed limit was 70 or 80, so I went 70 or 80,”) he recalls. In 1977 he took another road trip — this time with Springsteen — from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nevada, in a 1965 Ford Galaxy convertible. On the way, they encountered a memorable storm. “The sky went black and all of a sudden we were putting the top of the car up and running for our lives,” Meola says.

Later, Springsteen wrote a song about it — “The Promised Land.” The storm made a lasting impression on Meola as well. “I wanted to go back and photograph something like that, but I never got the opportunity,” he says.

He chose an auspicious year to finally go storm chasing. “That first year, 2012, was spectacular for storms, lightning, tornadoes, you name it,” he says. In 2013 he caught sight of the damage severe weather can cause when he did volunteer work in the town of Moore, OK, which had been hit by an EF5 tornado. “You’re going through all the detritus of people’s lives — wedding photos, graduation certificates. It puts a whole different meaning to the experience,” he says.

In 2018, Meola got a chance to photograph an outbreak of multiple tornadoes in South Dakota. “I rushed to set up my tripod, and dialed the camera to a preset for long exposures, making a wild guess at the number, framing the road in the foreground, although I could barely see it.  I gently released the shutter: f/4, 4 seconds, ISO 200. In my utter rain-soaked exhaustion, I heard it go off three times, and I repeated the process,” he recalled in a PPD post.

As we noted in a 2015 profile, Meola’s photographs of storms express his wonderment at nature’s fury, but they are not entirely about that, not in the sense that much storm photography is. His long fascination with the landscape of the Great Plains — it’s flatness and openness, a landscape of the grandest horizons — is apparent in much of the work, as is the use of color that has been a hallmark of his photography. “Essentially, storms are black and white,” he said. “But I sensed that within the black and white there was color. The tornadoes per se didn’t interest me that much. My photography has always been about color.”

As he composes, we noted, he tends to crop with the sky filling most of the frame. “In one sense, the top is the most important part of the picture, but equally important is the bottom part,” he told us. “I’m not a big proponent of having something in the frame to give scale, but when there is something out of the ordinary in the scene that gives that scale, I try to incorporate it.”

For the person witnessing the shattering allure of a tornado, time stands still. And in his photographs of storms, Meola captures that moment of infinite awe .

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