Stormy inspiration

Photographer David Mayhew aims his lens at the dark sky

Golden Ambience by David Mayhew
All photos courtesy of David Mayhew

At one point in his life, David Mayhew gave up on art. An art teacher in high school pushed an impressionist style when he wanted to go for a realistic one. The conflict steered him toward design engineering and graphic drawing — the career track that led to him arriving in the United States in 2004.

That he started chasing tornadoes shortly thereafter had more to do with geography than anything else.

“I’ve always said, every country you go to, you’ve got to do something unique to each country that you can’t do anywhere else,” says Mayhew, who grew up in Ipswich, England. Down the road from where he was living in Chicago, the College of DuPage offered meteorology classes and field studies that involved storm chasing. So he started going out with the storm chasers.

“I hooked up with them and got into storm chasing, and later on I decided to quit my engineering career and go into photography and combined my two hobbies,” he says.

Two years later, he was a full-time photographer spending the summer months chasing tornadoes and super-cell storms across the Midwest. The result, in addition to plenty of hail dents in his car and a new rear window after one was blown out in a storm, is a body of work that shows a lifelong interest in looking at the skies. The photos — which hold to that original aesthetic of authenticity and are only adjusted in Adobe Photoshop for contrast and saturation — seem like such an appropriate fit for exhibiting at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that it’s a bit of a surprise that it’s taken him three years since his relocation to Colorado to get there.

“Storm Front”

“So many people work in big cities where they’re surrounded by big buildings and often don’t get to see the sky, and there are just so many colors, details and natural beauty around all of us every day, and people often forget to look up,” Mayhew says. “And the sky can produce so many emotional qualities, like the serene beauty of a nice sunset or obviously the drama and the energy of a tornado. It’s got all the emotional scales, from joy and pain and fear and hate to tranquility.”

He travels from Mexico to Canada and Colorado to Indiana in pursuit of storms, but says the area around Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska is his favorite. The area tends to get later-season storms that move more slowly — across land as flat as a pancake that’s got a low population density and a good network of roads.

“My favorite is the isolated super cell storm, which hopefully, if you get a slow-moving one, you can position yourself pretty well,” he says. “But the tough question is whether to go in close and hope for tornado shots or pull back and get the structure of the storm and get nice sunsets and formations and details. So it’s a tough call.”

Mayhew draws on knowledge of the weather built in meteorology classes at DuPage, in addition to weather models, to select a target area and tries to arrive an hour or more ahead of the storms. Once there, he’ll reassess and adjust based on what’s happening in the atmosphere.

He’s had a few close encounters along the way, he says. The car engine is left running and pointed in the direction of the exit route. He keeps in mind when to take that exit, no matter how strong the lure of potential photos might be.

A series of six photos from June 2011

“There was a chase last year, it was my best chase ever, and that was June 20, 2011 — I saw seven tornadoes that day,” he says. “I could have seen more, but if you look at the images, you’ll see that the storm turned into this massive wall of black, dark ominous stuff heading straight at me, so I didn’t want to get too close to that for fear of that same bye-bye Kansas.”

He uses quick set-up tripods “even with tornadoes heading at me,” he says, “because, A, it’s dark under the storm and B, my hands are probably shaking, so a tripod’s always pretty useful.”

Why go into hand-shaking territory at all? Well, he says, a landscape without a dramatic sky is just kind of boring for him.

“The Strength Within”

“The point of art is to create an emotional response in the viewer, no matter what the art is and no matter what the response is to it, so the sky’s an obvious choice,” he says. “And you get different reactions to the same thing. For example, one person is amazed by the beauty of the tornado, whereas another has fear and obviously doesn’t want to put the tornado in their house, so you get complete contrasts in reactions.”

David Mayhew´s photography is on view at the galleries at the National Center for Atmospheric Research along with the work of Ralena Gordon, creator of “The Empty Places,” a body of photographic work on abandoned mental hospitals. A closing reception for their exhibition is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Jan. 26 at NCAR. Additional information can be found at and