‘Once you’ve seen a tornado drop from the sky, or watched a powerful storm form, you’re humbled.’
Photographer Eric Meola is telling MailOnline Travel how it feels to be in the presence of an epic, angry weather system – something he’s experienced many times during his quite remarkable career.
Meola has spent four decades photographing storms on America’s Great Plains and has produced a sensational body of work from his trips. And lucky us, some of his very best efforts have been committed to print.
A supercell with ‘sculpted updraft sides’ at Circle, Montana. This amazing image was taken on June 9, 2016
A cumulonimbus cloud at sunset in Oglala, South Dakota, taken on June 17, 2015
A jaw-dropping picture of a tornado over Viola in Kansas, taken on May 19, 2013
A stunning image of lightning strikes over the village of Stamford, Nebraska, taken on June 21, 2017
A powerful tornado caught on camera at sunset in Capitol, Montana, on June 28, 2018
Over 100 atmospheric photographs of tornadoes, lightning, dust storms and storm phenomena feature in his new book – Fierce Beauty: Storms of the Great Plains (The Images Publishing Group).
They were taken between 1977 and 2019 in America’s heartland west of the 98th meridian and east of the Rockies – including the infamous Tornado Alley – where atmospheric instability collides with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and spectacular cumulonimbus clouds form.
Over several years he documented a landscape of elemental forces, where immense storms percolate miles above the ground, rotating with energy until tornadoes spin on the horizon.
And he discovered a country of haunting beauty where the wail of coyotes and the glow of constellations fill the prairie’s void.
The updraft base of a severe storm at sunset in Aurora, Nebraska, taken on June 13, 2017
Mammatus clouds crossing the Rio Grande in Ruidosa, Texas, on May 18, 2016
A hail-filled supercell above a harvested field in Kanorado, Kansas. This image was taken by Eric on May 31, 2015
Elemental forces: A chaotic sky over Barnhart in Texas, captured on May 14, 2013
A stunning image of a rainbow and falling hail, taken in Keota, Colorado, on June 21, 2018
He continues: ‘Being in the presence of nature at its most powerful feels like being present at the creation of the Earth. For most people, it’s the most incredible connection with Nature that you will ever have. It’s elemental, it’s pure, it’s powerful, and it seemingly comes out of nowhere — it’s the most spellbinding thing you will ever experience.’
Meola became transfixed by storms during a 1977 road trip across Nevada to photograph artwork for musician Bruce Springsteen.
While driving in the desert they encountered a violent storm and Meola took several incredible pictures of it, one of which was used as the cover image for Springsteen’s album The Promise.
Springsteen said of the photographs Meola took: ‘Eric caught some great pictures but what he really captured was something in the sky and in the lay of the land that deeply revealed the grandeur and character of the country.’
The storm experience also yielded something else – it inspired the singer’s lyrics for the 1978 single The Promised Land.
Meola reveals that he was certain Springsteen was writing the song in his head as they travelled.
He says: ‘My lasting memory of the trip with Bruce to Nevada was the intensity of the storm in the desert, and watching his reaction — I think it was the first trip he had made to the Southwest. And then, of course, two weeks later I heard The Promised Land, in which he wrote about the experience of being out there during the storm.
‘It became one of his most popular anthems. He was absorbing everything like a sponge — the names, the places, the roads, the light… everything. I realized later that he was writing lyrics in his head almost all the time.’
He adds: ‘I always wanted to go back to that day when we drove up on a hilltop and watched as lightning revealed the valley floor.’
A nocturnal tornado captured while Meola was on State Road 20 in Buffalo, South Dakota, on June 28, 2018
A supercell at sunset over Haviland, Kansas, captured by Meola on June 17, 2017
A mesmerising picture of a twister at Woonsocket in South Dakota, taken on June 18, 2014
The ‘rear-flank downdraft region’ of a supercell at Wheatland in Wyoming. This awe-inspiring image was taken on June 21, 2013
Sheared updraft (a storm that is tilted by the wind) at sunset over Sandhills, Nebraska, on May 17, 2013
The album cover image for Springsteen’s The Promise was taken by Meola during a 1977 Nevada road trip with the singer
Looking at the pictures Meola has made of storms, one might imagine that the photographer has risked his life to take them – but he insists that his storm chasing has always been safe.
He says: ‘Chasing storms is relatively safe, if you know what you’re doing and travel with great meteorologists, which I always do. That said, there’s always lightning, hail, high wind, and traffic when you’re rushing on highways near a city.
‘The group I go with — Tempest Tours of Arlington, Texas — doesn’t take risks, so I’ve always felt safe, as we keep a reasonable distance from tornadoes and lightning. That’s part of what you accept: you can either be safe, or you can get too close for comfort, which is why I always follow protocol in terms of safety.’
So after all these years, is Meola now a ‘weather geek’? Yes and no, apparently.
He says: ‘I’ve absorbed the basic concepts of how supercells and tornadoes form, which is the simple part; but the science is quite involved, and I know enough to get by and just enjoy the storms, and talk intelligently about them. But I’ve been with the best chasers and meteorologists, and I realize just how complicated predicting weather can be, especially fast-moving storms.
‘So I’m a geek in terms of loving weather, but I sure wouldn’t call myself a geek in terms of the science.’
Science geek or not, Meola definitely knows the formula for taking immensely powerful shots – images that have taken the world of photography by storm.
Fierce Beauty: Storms of the Great Plains by Eric Meola (The Images Publishing Group, $85/CDN $115), is out now.
Fierce Beauty: Storms of the Great Plains by Eric Meola (The Images Publishing Group, $85/CDN $115), is out now