Sometimes it’s OK to judge a book by its cover. That’s certainly the case with Greg Johnson’s 2012 photography collection.
Johnson himself squints at readers from the oversized cover. In the background dark clouds loom overhead, ominous and foreboding. There’s some serious wind being kicked up; you can tell by the way Johnson’s face is contorted, his lips forced open in a grimace, his cheeks plastered against his skull as if he’s an astronaut taking major G’s.
Even the title isn’t immune to the wind. The final three letters of the main title, “BLOWN AWAY,” seem to be peeling off. The subtitle clings to the bottom of the cover like it’s hiding in a ditch: “A year through the lens of The Tornado Hunter.”
That’s really all you need to know.
Johnson, 42, is a relative newcomer to storm chasing but a veteran photographer. Whereas others aim to videotape twisters or place scientific instruments in their path, Johnson simply seeks a safe vantage point from which to photograph tornadoes — large, small and in-between.
Although he lives in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan, Johnson has chased storms across Oklahoma and other Tornado Alley states. He is signing copies of his book at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 Northwest Expressway.
“I came from the corporate world,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “I had a few businesses I was running. I was living that life you hear about in motivational speeches everywhere: I was working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then coming home in time to kiss my kids before they went to bed and then going to sleep and doing the same thing all over again.”
When he realized how much of his three children’s lives he was missing, he decided to sell all of his businesses and seek out a simpler life.
Saskatchewan is sort of the northern end of Tornado Alley, he said. It’s rural and sparsely populated; 35 tornadoes rolled through the province in July, he said, but there is no tornado warning system.
As a photographer, twisters fascinated him. Videos seemed to be everywhere, but high-quality photos of tornadoes were harder to find. Maybe, he thought, he should be the one to shoot them.
He taught himself basic meteorology on the Internet. (His book includes a glossary of terms familiar to most native Oklahomans, such as “wall cloud” and “supercell.”) He became friends with meteorologists in the U.S. and Canada.
And in 2009, he went on his first storm chase. He and a couple of friends headed to Texas and ventured to Lone Grove, where eight people had been killed and more than 300 homes damaged in February of that year.
His first large tornado didn’t come along until May 21, 2011. Seeing a monstrous twister drop toward the highway near Ada didn’t inspire fear so much as an adrenaline rush. He hadn’t yet grasped the toll tornadoes take on real people. It was still exciting, not terrifying.
That changed the next day. On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado three-quarters of a mile wide howled into Joplin, Mo., killing more than 150 people and ruining thousands of buildings.
“That’s where the reasons and emotions really kind of changed,” he said. “Joplin was by far the worst thing that anyone in the storm chasing community had ever seen. It was the worst tornado in 60 years. To see the horror of that and the devastation and the suffering that went with it really changed my perspective.”
At the end of the 2011 season, which spawned record numbers of tornadoes, Johnson decided to compile his photos into a book. Its memorable cover was designed to attract book browsers.
“I did a marketing analysis across the whole genre,” he said. “There are probably a dozen or so books out there about storms and storm chasing and stuff, but they all have the same cover: a picture of a tornado. We wanted to have something that danced a little bit on the bookshelf and was maybe more of a personal journey.
“I’ve included, for the photographers in the crowd, information about how the photos were shot and what we used. People always ask me what F-stop I used and things like that, so that information is in there.”
The book, produced by Indie Ink Publishing, is rather gorgeous. Photographs, some taking up full pages, capture tornado development and raw damage, as well as the frightening majesty of one of nature’s most powerful forces. Johnson’s writing takes readers inside the storm.
Buy signed copies Tuesday night at Full Circle. The book also is available for $34.95 at www.indieinkpublishing. com/blownaway.