Storm photographer Stephen Locke chases raging weather beauty (with video)

07/26/2014 7:00 AM

07/28/2014 7:05 AM

Sitting under a tree and hotter than hell, Stephen Locke squinted at the horizon for the umpteenth time.

The sky above Perry Lake was cornflower blue and cloudless.

Another busted chase, Locke thought.

The radar on his iPhone showed a paintball splat of orange north of Kansas City, practically his backyard. Why had he got it in his head that a storm would fire over this lake west of Lawrence?

He checked the latest meteorological data on the computer in his truck. Potential for a tornado or even a supercell in the area: zero. And temperatures at 9,000 feet were distressingly high; that fat layer of hot air aloft could short-circuit even a moderate storm.

Still, the radar continued to show a thin blue line, a boundary, nearby. A cool, dry wall of air was pushing against the swampy mass that was making Locke’s shirt stick to his chest.

Storms can fire along boundaries. Or not.

Locke decided to stick it out.

Less than an hour later, a single fluffy white cloud popped onto the west horizon as the sun was beginning to drop.

Bingo.

In the five years since he started his weather photography business, Tempest Gallery, Locke has rattled his 15-year-old hail-pocked Ford Explorer with cracked windows across every county in Kansas (105) and Nebraska (93) and most parts of Oklahoma, Colorado and Iowa.

He doesn’t chase in Missouri. The hills and rainier nature of that state’s storms don’t lend themselves to pretty pictures. And beauty, not mayhem, is Locke’s stock-in-trade.

In spring and summer, Locke spends little time at his Roeland Park home and studio.

Single for more than a decade with no kids, Locke said, “The vagabond lifestyle is best for me.”

He loves being on the road, doesn’t crave companionship. He has friends he regards as close that he doesn’t see for months.

On a recent rare Friday at home, he agreed to go dancing at a club with a group of friends, only to cancel at the last minute when a tantalizing front in Iowa caught his eye.

“Steve just pulled a Steve,” reads the text a friend sent to the rest of the group after he called her. “He manifested a storm to avoid dancing.”

Pursuing giant storms on the back roads of the depopulated heartland is romantic, but three giant plastic gas cans inside his home’s front door reveal its unglamorous side. For weeks this spring, Locke used the cans to haul extra water in his truck for refilling the broken radiator several times a day. In the steamy conditions typical of storm locations, he was driving with the windows down and the heater on full blast to help cool the engine.

“The last thing you want is to have a tornado bearing down on you and your radiator is overheating,” he said.

Even without car trouble, chasing storms full time is similar to a common description of war: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

Especially the boredom part.

“A lot of what I do is sitting by the side of the road getting a sunburn,” Locke said. “Half my forecasts don’t pan out.”

In the early part of storm season, April and the beginning of May, Locke camps a lot, sleeping in the back of his truck.

When the heat settles in he sleeps in motels, mostly so he can take a shower. That gets expensive, so Locke has made a sideline of discovering cheap accommodations. “I know where all the best $50 mom-and-pop motels in the Midwest are,” he said.

It’s not just price that drives him to vintage accommodations. When he gets to his room, usually late, he needs to set up an office with computers and hard drives to review the day’s take. That’s easier when he can back his truck up to his room.

“I’ll sleep at a truck stop before I’ll stay at a motel where I have to schlep my stuff though the lobby and up stairs,” he said.

One casualty of life during chase season is his normally healthy diet and exercise routine. Locke, tall with an athletic build, keeps in shape with a combination of a ketogenic diet — high in fat, low in carbs and sugars — and by lifting weights and doing Tabata sprints, a series of short, intense sprints.

Last summer Locke started making fermented food. It doesn’t need refrigeration and is a healthier alternative to the fast food chains that are often the only option in rural areas.

A really great day on a chase is one where he stumbles onto an old-fashioned burger stand or a motel room with fresh paint and a new mattress.

“I would take a newly remodeled motel in Smith Center over Paris any day,” he said.

Locke’s 4,000 Facebook friends take as much delight in his dispatches from small prairie towns as in his beautiful storm images:

June 16, undisclosed location in Nebraska:

(With a still shot of Bates Motel from the movie “Psycho”)

“How I find myself here I do not know. This place is so small it does not have an office or front desk. A guy had to walk down from the house to meet me after dark and let me in. Gave him a fifty dollar bill for a $45 room and I kid you not he said he’d have to go back up to the house to see if his mother could make change. I just hope she’s not taxidermic. I tried to do a Facebook check-in but this place isn’t even on the map. I’m in room #1 of only six. I am the ONLY person in this motel. If you never hear from me again you’ll know why.”

June 6, near Haswell, Colo.:

(With a photo of a ragged-edge flying saucer-shaped storm)

“Battled this earth eating supercell for 8 hours today on the High Plains. This shot is in the unpaved outback of Colorado where there are no hardtop roads and occasional cell data. Storm goes tornado-warned over my head as I shoot this. It is ingesting tons of Colorado landscape and so am I. This is why we can’t have nice things like a clean camera sensor.”

June 3, Broken Bow, Neb.:

(With a photo of hail on the floor inside the open door of a motel room)

“Downside: I spend all day successfully dodging hail cores, check into my motel room and this … !”

“Upside: I just poured a scotch over golf ball ice cubes from the sky.”

May 20, Burlington, Colo.:

(With a shot of a beautiful, sharp-edge storm)

“This long lived cyclical supercell was born on the Colorado front range mountains … Like a true high plains drifter it was an isolated loner, the only storm in Colorado as it wandered toward Kansas.… It traveled directly over my head as I was held rapt by its magnificent presence.”

Like the “high plains drifter” supercell, Locke is a product of the Colorado front range.

Growing up in Boulder in the 1960s, he loved watching the ferocious “upslope” storms that fired every afternoon in the summer with their terrifying thunderclaps and lightning bolts.

After sixth grade his family moved to Kansas, and Locke graduated from Shawnee Mission South high school in 1974. He had no desire to go to college but did have a dream of making a living at photography.

Locke is self-taught. He has never taken a photography class, although many of his peers consider him among the best in the business.

“When I decide to learn something, I pour myself 110 percent into it,” he said. “In those days, I walked into the library and left with a wheelbarrow full of books and read them over and over. Today I get all my information about new technologies online.”

It took a while for his photo business to come together, but when it did, it took off meteorically.

In the earliest days Locke did freelance documentary work. But on an assignment to shoot disaster victims for the American Red Cross, he found himself unable to point the camera at people in their most vulnerable circumstances.

At that pivotal moment he decided to switch to portrait photography celebrating life.

In the ’90s he became enamored of black and white and carved out a niche: “Stephen Locke Portraits / Exclusively Black and White,” his card read.

Although Locke had always been a quiet, shy person, he had to learn how to interact with socialites and dignitaries. He studied the etiquette and protocols of that world until moving in it became as effortless as metering light or framing a shot.

About six years ago the landscape, especially in Kansas, began calling him.

For a while, as Locke shot fine art images of abandoned stone churches or fields of sunflowers and experimented with a technique for capturing ultra high-definition images of big storms on open fields, he juggled day trips with his full schedule of jobs in the city.

“May is the statistical peak of weddings and storm chasing, so that was a huge conflict for a while,” Locke said.

Once, his two specialties collided when he was shooting a wedding in Olathe and tornado sirens sounded during the ceremony.

“The priest said we should move the wedding to the basement, where there was a rummage sale going on, so there was clothing piled everywhere. Then the power went out and it was pitch black except for the light on the videographer’s camera, and the ceremony concluded in that tiny light with sirens blaring,” he said.

Locke used to shoot 30 weddings a year but has let that slow down to free up his calendar to chase, especially in May.

To capture the beauty of a storm he has spent days forecasting, Locke has developed a distinctive style of creating time-lapse videos from thousands of still images.

“Steve’s work is graceful,” said storm chaser Darin Brunin of Lawrence. “A lot of people capture the wrath of the storm, but he produces something that shows its beauty and majesty. You watch one of his videos and even if there’s a tornado you’d still think, ‘What a smooth, surreal, serene situation.’”

At last count, Locke had 17 hard drives with a total of 38 terrabytes of storage lined up like dominoes on a table next to his home computer.

“When I shoot a storm, I’m just barely getting started,” he said.

It can take two days for his computer to render thousands of huge files in IMAX-quality resolution. Locke then has to individually adjust each image before it can be stitched with others into a time-lapse film, often paired with music.

While selling pretty photos is part of his business, the bigger deals are sales to international production companies that buy the footage for science television programming, mostly outside the U.S.

“I’ve sold some footage to CNN and Discovery, but it more often gets used for dramatic programming. I think other countries just have a lot more real science programming than we do,” he said.

Locke is part of the Midwestern storm-chasing community, but also separate from it.

He aims to keep a distance from atmospheric violence rather than get underneath it.

“I spend a lot of time running away from hail. Hail will ruin your day; it can cave in your windshield,” Locke said.

He doesn’t trade in the dramatic but grainy images of tornadoes touching down.

“A lot of people are doing electronic news gathering. You don’t need good quality to sell that — it helps if people are yelling in the backseat or if your girlfriend is crying,” he said with a sly smile.

In a classic storm system, the warm front is the most likely location for storms and tornadoes, and that is where the convoys of antenna-laden, satellite-dish-sporting SUVs clump.

The same storm system also will have a dry line between moist and dry air masses. Storms are less likely to form along the dry line, but if they do, they tend to be more isolated and less rainy, which makes for better pictures.

“That’s the gambit I play over and over. My favorite kind of storm occurs when the atmosphere is not willing to give it up. Storms are more photogenic when the atmosphere is on that knife’s edge of having a storm or not having a storm.”

One day in early June, Locke found himself stuck in a hail storm on a 35-mile stretch of the Kansas Turnpike that had no exit. His mood was as foul as the sagging charcoal sky.

The day before, he had passed up good storms in Kansas to follow a big storm in Nebraska — the kind he normally passed on. It ended up being a big rainy mess followed by a long drive home.

“The drive home from Nebraska is always the longest. It gives you hours to contemplate everything you did wrong, all of your regrets,” he said.

And now here he was, seemingly in the wrong spot again, with the National Weather Service issuing tornado warnings in Kansas City and Locke 200 miles away.

As he steered his truck through the muck toward the dry line, close to Wichita, doubts piled up. The moisture looked weak. Any storms might be quickly undercut by dry air.

But he studied his maps, picked out a spot and set up two cameras on tripods in a light rain — not good for the equipment, but Locke predicted the rain would stop momentarily and it did.

Then a magnificent, twirling, ethereal-looking storm came together exactly inside the frames of Locke’s stationary cameras. When that supercell drifted off, a second one spun up in exactly the same spot, and then a third.

It was spectacular, better than anything Locke had ever seen.

“I knew as I was filming it that it was going to go viral, because no one has anything like it,” Locke said.

As a bonus, the triple-header storm came together over a town called Climax.

As this story went to press, the time-lapse film had more than 1 million views on Vimeo, and Locke had taken calls from National Geographic and an Australian TV producer interested in buying it.

“He always gets better pictures,” said fellow chaser Shane Kirk of Shawnee. “I know everybody, and nobody does video footage better than Stephen.”

Kirk thinks Locke isn’t in the spotlight more because he doesn’t seek it. “He’s very low-key and doesn’t toot his own horn like some of the more well-known guys do.”

A lot of chasers describe storm chasing in gambling terms: “playing” a feature of a forecast, making a “bet” on a system, “going bust” if things don’t pan out.

Locke anthropomorphizes the four states where he usually chases.

“Nebraska is the lover that jilts me over and over again, and I ask myself why I always fall for her promises,” Locke said. That’s because storms in Nebraska often look great in the days before on paper and then fail to come together. But when they do, they are huge and slow-moving wonders.

“Colorado is the daughter who can do no wrong. I’ll do anything for her,” he said. It’s the scenery he grew up with, and it resonates in his soul.

“Oklahoma is a wild country girl” with storms as chaotic and fast as Nebraska’s are organized and slow.

“Kansas is the girl next door that I know like the back of my hand. She’s always sweet and wholesome,” he said of the state where he chases the most. The grid layout of roads in the rural landscape makes getting into position easy; the wide-open spaces afford sweeping full-frame views, and the relative dryness lets light and color stream through storms to magical effect.

Marla Hoehn of Lenexa and her husband, Stan, have several of Locke’s storm and landscape photos hanging in their home and Stan Hoehn’s medical practice.

“Seeing our Midwestern landscapes in sunshine and under threatening storms, it moves you,” Marla Hoehn said. “It’s like we’ve been through good times and bad times and that’s how life is.”

In 2011, Locke shot a gorgeous geomagnetic storm that caused the northern lights to be seen at Perry Lake, a rare occurrence. Here he was again, hitting a different jackpot three years later. Minutes after the tiny white cloud blipped above the horizon, the whole sky exploded.

Locke, drenched in sweat from the long wait, was ready. He snapped into action, checking that the two cameras on tripods, one wide view and one narrow, were firing, and adjusting them for the constantly changing light — now blazing, now filmy.

Just outside the cameras’ field of view, another storm popped and began to form a wall cloud, so he kept an eye on that, too.

In 20 minutes’ time a mountain of vapor miles high was towering over the lake with a brilliant sunset passing behind it.

“It was one of the most dramatic things I’ve ever experienced. I got the storm exactly where I wanted it; my 3-day-old forecast was verified. When I think about how many busted chases, how many times my forecasts are all wrong …”

This year, Locke chased far more than ever before, and he hopes to ramp it up even more next spring. After decades in the fields of his dreams, he has finally found the niche that best suits his nature and spirituality.

By creating a distinctive style with his time-lapse movies, he has slowly built an international business sufficient to pay for the broken radiators, technology upgrades and $50 motels.

“I can see me doing this when I’m 80,” he said.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her at twitter.com/CindyHoedel, and at facebook.com/cindy.hoedel.

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