Horror and Beauty through Adjacent Lenses

Between the typhoon that has devastated the Philippines and the outbreak of tornadoes that have devastated the Midwest, the media has presented us with pictures of terrible devastation on a scale that we have not seen since Hurricane Sandy.

These first two photos are of the ruined landscape that Typhoon Haiyan left in its wake as it passed over the Philippines:

Philippines 1

Philippines 2

And these two photographs are of Harrisburg, Illinois, one of the towns hardest hit by the recent outbreak of tornadoes:

Harrisburg, Illinois 1

XX tornado4.jpg

There is a sameness to these photographs, to the images of wrecked lives and the consequent human misery, that ought to reinforce our sense of connection to the people of the Philippines and those of any other place struck by natural forces beyond our control and, at least in the immediate moment, beyond our comprehension. The only thing that truly separates “us” from “them” is that we were lucky enough to be somewhere else.

During this latest outbreak of severe weather in the heartland, the focus on the “storm chasers” seemed much reduced in comparison to the attention to them during the coverage of the spring storms across the Southern plains. Perhaps, the deaths of one group of those “storm chasers” have reduced participation among those with a less diehard commitment to the avocation. Perhaps the media has simply become leery of seeming to encourage behavior that does not make much sense because, in most cases, it does not actually serve much purpose. (I suspect that the practice of putting reporters on the beach as a hurricane begins to move towards shore will end when some unfortunate doofus in a windbreaker is speared by an uprooted no-swimming or lifeguard-on-duty sign.)

In the context of those disclaimers about the ostensible value of “storm chasing,” I would like to direct everyone to a set of storm photographs that are as mesmerizing as anything more conventionally describable as beautiful. Taken by Mitch Downbrowner, these photographs suggest the unearthly power of storms in a manner that harkens back to a sort of Old Testament religious awe—an effect that is accentuated, I think, by their being black-and-white, instead of color, photographs. Indeed, if Ansel Adams animated stone with light, Downbrowner suggests the storms’ terrible store of energy in the fluid juxtaposition of darkness and light.

The first photograph was taken near Guymon, Oklahoma; the second, near Regan, North Dakota:

Guymon, Oklahoma

Regan, North Dakota

The complete set of photographs can be found at:


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