Where there’s lightning, there’s thunder – and photographers Jeff Smith and A.T. “Tom” Willett shooting the action.
For the past 25 years, Smith and Willett have teamed up to capture images of dangerous and awe-inspiring tornados, powerful hurricanes and fierce lightning storms, which will feel familiar to Tucsonans in the upcoming monsoon season.
The public can check out the duo’s work at “Out of a Clear Blue Sky: Severe Weather Photographs,” on exhibit at Etherton Gallery through Sept. 1.
“It immediately strikes a chord with the people who live here,” says Terry Etherton, owner of the downtown gallery.
Many of the shots consist of lightning strikes photographed during the monsoon season in Arizona, where low humidity and open skies make ideal conditions for taking storm pictures. Smith and Willett say they have taken some of their best photos within 50 miles of Tucson.
In states such as Florida, where severe weather is more frequent, higher humidity brings a storm base lower. The result is an abundance of smaller lightning bolts, Smith and Willett say.
Images of Arizona’s more majestic lightning fill the gallery. One of Smith’s shots, “Swan Song, Arizona” (2006), shows a jet black sky revealing dark clouds being split open by a pure white lightning bolt as it hammers down to Earth with a beautifully eerie glow.
Willett’s “Black Saguaro, Electric Sky” (1988) displays the silhouette of a saguaro cactus under an ominous dark blue sky as Heaven’s blinding fury strikes in the distance.
Smith, 48, and Willett, 43, have had plenty of opportunities to shoot lightning together. They have a long association that dates back to their days as students at Pima Community College in the ’80s. A native of Macon, Ga., Smith moved to Tucson in 1970. He earned his associate’s degree from Pima in 1984 and has been on photo and storm-chasing assignments in countries including Argentina and Australia.
Willett came to Tucson in 1971 when his family moved from Hinsdale, Ill. He began his career at the Tucson Citizen, and one of his lightning photos appears on a British postage stamp. He and Smith share a Web site relating to severe weather.
They also share memories of close encounters with Mother Nature’s dark side. When going out to photograph, the two take precautions to ensure they are free of metal – from loose change in pockets to ringlets on shoes.
But sometimes the precautions just aren’t enough. While photographing in Sells in 1993, Smith and Willett had a brush with lightning that was a little too close for comfort. They were watching a storm that was about 15 miles away when a lightning bolt struck down about 50 feet in front of them.
Willett instantly yelled at Smith to get down.
“When I jumped to the ground, that’s when I saw the bolt,” Smith says.
It was a loud and “shocking” experience, says Willett, who felt as if someone had flashed a blinding light right in front of his face.
Since then, they take their photos from the relative safety of a car whenever possible.
But the occupational risks don’t deter the thrill-seeking duo. As Smith sees it, going out in storms is like the difference between seeing a baseball game in person and watching it on TV.
“The storm is happening all around you,” he says. “In front of you, behind you, and you need to be right there in that moment.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Out of a Clear Blue Sky: Severe Weather Photographs” by Jeff Smith and A.T. Willett
When: Through Sept 1. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and by appointment
Where: Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave.
Info: 624-7370, ethertongallery.com