In 1977, while driving across Nevada with Rock icon Bruce Springsteen, Eric Meola got caught in a storm. “It was an epic biblical storm,” he says. “It was a light show, a dramatic storm out of central casting.”
The experience prompted New York photographer Eric Meola to return to the Great Plains years later, with camera in hand. It would be the beginning of a three-year project spanning nearly 25,000 miles of what he calls “the most beautiful places on earth.” The project, titled Tornado Alley: The Sky Above the Land Below, will be featured in an upcoming gallery exhibition in New York City.
Traveling across more than seven Midwestern states with a professional storm-chasing group called Tempest Tours, Meola documented everything from hair-raising tornadoes to serene sunsets. While interested in the interplay between light and color in the sky, he also sought to portray signs of life in the old towns they visited. “A gnarled tree, a road sign, railroad tracks,” he says. “Something like that can scale the photograph and offer context.”
He studied under Pete Turner, a colorist whose stylistic methods influenced Meola’s use of saturated color. In the storm images, Meola used post-processing to correct what the camera failed to accurately capture and bring back the image he remembers with his eye, he says. “You get purple in the blue skies when there is lightning, sunsets provide the warm colors, and then the blues and greens come from the hail in the clouds.”
While the deadly force of a storm can wreak havoc upon a community, he hopes his work reminds the justifiably safety-conscientious observer that there is another side to these storms. “You are miles away from the nearest town and you are looking at these beautiful, flat horizons with endless wheat fields, long roads and dramatic rolling hills,” he says. “Then in all of the peacefulness comes this angry sky that is almost exploding with energy and light, form and shape. Nature truly is beautiful.”
Storm Chaser: New Photographs will be on view at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery from September 3 to 26, with an opening reception September 3 from 5 to 7 p.m.
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.
Rachel Lowry is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter @rachelllowry.