A Decade of Burning Man Photography

By Scott London — September 24, 2013

I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man. It was my tenth consecutive year, which seems hard to believe. 2013 marked the 27th anniversary of the event and it was more massive than ever. The sheer energy and intensity seems to have been ramped up several notches this year. One of the most common refrains on the playa was that the party seemed to be in full swing even before the gates opened. Many of us felt as if we barely caught our breath all week and came home more ragged than usual. But what a beautiful week it was!

Last year I shot on assignment for RollingStone.com and I was happy for the chance to do that again this time. The editors were wonderful to work with and gave me wide latitude to cover the event much as I’ve always done. They published two slideshows of 25 images each — one focusing on the installations, the art cars, and the event as a whole (Burning Man 2013: The Scene), and the other devoted to the beautiful and amazing faces of Black Rock City (Burning Man 2013: The People).

People have been asking me whether the Rolling Stone editors or I myself picked the final selection of images. The answer is both: I sent them about 80 photos and they narrowed it down to 50. I found it interesting that they passed on a lot of the usual Burning Man stuff, like aerial photos of Black Rock City, twilight shots of the temple, and the man engulfed in flames. I guess those have become something of a cliché at this point. Which can only mean that for better or worse Burning Man is now part of the cultural mainstream.

In addition to working for Rolling Stone, I’ve teamed up with fellow photographer Sidney Erthal and writer Jennifer Raiser, both dear friends, on a book that’s slated for publication next summer. It will be a richly illustrated coffee table book with some trenchant writing (and extensive captions) devoted to Burning Man as a cultural phenomenon.

One of the highlights of the week was having our book editor fly in from New York to experience Burning Man for a few days (something I wish more assignment editors would do!). Seeing her take it all in for the first time helped me to remember a time ten years ago when it was all new to me. It also helped me to see the event with greater objectivity.

This was also my fifth year on the Burning Man documentation team, a small group of photographers invited to capture the event for the organization. Every year we set out to document the full range of art installations, theme camps, mutant vehicles, and scheduled performances. The task seemed more impossible than usual given the scale of the event this year. But we gave it our best.

My photography has changed and evolved over the decade that I’ve been shooting at Burning Man. But the basic impulse has remained the same — to try in some small way to capture the beauty, the creativity, the whimsy, the madness and the sheer outrageous good fun of it all. I’m always gratified when non-burners appreciate the photos, but my primary goal has always been to share them with those who were there and, to whatever extent I can, contribute a little of my own creativity to the mix.

As in previous years, I shot all the images using a pair of trusty Canon DSLRs. If you’re interested in the equipment I carry, have a look at What’s In the Camera Bag. I shot about 4,000 frames over the course of a week. Just two days into the event, I broke my primary lens — the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom. It was brand new and I had purchased it specifically for shooting on the playa, so this was a setback. It meant that I had to adopt a somewhat different lens strategy than I’m used to, shooting “wide” and “long,” instead of “normal.” You can judge the results and tell me what you think.

I get a lot of questions about my gear and how I protect it in such a harsh environment. The answer is I don’t. I think people spend too much time worrying about heat and dust. For an interesting discussion about this, have a look at the thread on Flickr titled How do you keep your camera from getting dusty at Burning Man? See also playa photographer Curious Josh’s Short Camera Tips for Burning Man.

For more on my Burning Man photography — what first inspired me to get into it, how my approach has evolved over the years, and what gear I use — you can read an interview I did a while back with Paul Caridad Sanchez in Visual NewsScott London Captures the Magic at Burning Man. Another couple of interviews appear in It’s Nice That and Ignite.me.

As always, I’m grateful to the many wonderful people of Burning Man who freely consented to let me photograph them in the act of dancing, stilt-walking, hooping, making art, or simply being beautiful. I don’t take that permission for granted. It requires a special patience to put up with tiresome photographers sticking their equipment in your face — pointing lenses at your tattoos, your necklaces, your derriere. My art, such as it is, would not be possible without that open consent and participation. So thank you.

Here’s a set of 100 personal favorites from this year: Burning Man 2013.


Old Spanish Days

By Scott London — August 5, 2013

“Celebrating our heritage” can mean different things. For some, it’s all about confetti and sombreros, fish tacos and flamenco performances. For others, it’s about the pride of being a fourth or fifth-generation Californian. The kids, for their part, mostly love an excuse to dress up and parade down State Street.

For the complete set of images from Fiesta 2013, click here.

Solstice Celebration

By Scott London — June 30, 2013

Santa Barbara’s fabulous Solstice Parade took place last weekend. Here are a handful of photos from the event.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013: A Photo by Scott London

Donning a colorful solstice-themed head-piece, Mr. Sunshine led the way up State Street.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013: A Photo by Scott London

Hilary Kleger was one of many beautiful dancers in the Hip Brazil dance troupe. Their elaborate headpieces and sexy sequined outfits conjured up images of the Rio Carneval.

Panzumo dance troupe at the 2013 Summer Solstice Parade: A Photo by Scott London

Panzumo, a high-energy drum and dance ensemble led by Lisa Beck (center), are longtime favorites at the Solstice Parade.

Robert Bernstein at the 2013 Solstice Parade: A Photo by Scott London

Unicyclist Robert Bernstein has been a part of the Solstice Parade since 1985.

Panzumo Dancers - A Photo by Scott London

 Taking inspiration from the 2013 theme “Creatures,” Emiliano Campobello played the part of a character from Avatar.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013 - A Photo by Scott London

All you need to participate, as twins Arran and Ethan will tell you, is some face-paint and neon hair dye.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013: A Photo by Scott London

Hip Brazil dancer Naomi Broomberg.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013 - A Photo by Scott London

Hip Brazil dancer Missy Butler.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013: A Photo by Scott London

Dancers dressed as winged mermaids? Why not, it’s a solstice party!

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013 - A Photo by Scott London

Hungarian-born artist Pali-X-Mano is known for his eye-popping inflatable sculptures. This year’s creation was a giant 30-foot “solar creature” with aerial dancers inside. The float barely fit under the tree canopy of State Street.

Santa Barbara Solstice Parade 2013: A Photo by Scott London

Hoopers Lindsey Mickelson and Veronika Petra.

Some of my images from the 2012 Solstice Celebration were featured on CNN last week. Check out Seven Strange and Wonderful Ways You Celebrate the Summer Solstice

For more of my photos from the Solstice festivities, go to:

How Do We Get American Politics Back on Track?

By Scott London — June 27, 2013

A healthy skepticism of government is built into the American character. But public attitudes have gone beyond mere skepticism in recent years. Surveys show that disaffection with government is at or near an all-time high. Many people have abandoned their faith in our elected leadership.

Some of the public’s frustration can be attributed to economic anxiety and uncertainty about the future. But it also reflects deep concerns about the forces shaping American politics—from partisan rancor and congressional gridlock to the high cost of political campaigns and the growing influence of special interest groups.

Any one of these problems taken in isolation would represent a serious challenge to our democratic process. But taken together, they make it almost impossible for government to address the nation’s most pressing issues.

In a new issue book, just published by the National Issues Forums, I write about how deadlock and dysfunction have become the new norm in American politics. I also explore a number of options for addressing the problems and getting the system back on track. The issue guide is part of a series of publications used to promote serious discussion in communities and on campuses across the country. Here’s an excerpt:

Art from 'Political Fix,' an issue guide for the National Issues ForumsToday Washington D.C. is home to a growing special-interest and lobbying industry, one that employs as many as 100,000 people, making it the third largest sector in the American capital after government and tourism.

The health care industry alone employs six lobbyists for every elected politician in Washington. On key issues like energy, defense and education, they exert an influence that is difficult to measure but undeniable.

Lobbyists advocate on behalf of organizations and constituencies, attempting to influence lawmakers and shape policies to suit their own interests. “The Catholic Church has lobbyists,” says American University professor James Thurber. “The Boy Scouts have lobbyists. The AFL-CIO has lobbyists. Apple does. Everybody has a lobbyist.”

Because lobbying firms represent special interests—those of the few rather than those of the many—their efforts tend to distort legislative priorities, sow contention and conflict, and compromise the government’s responsiveness to the public good.

As the number of lobbyists has grown, so has the influence of big money. With the soaring cost of political campaigns, lawmakers have to spend much of their time fundraising. Studies show that a typical senator working 40 hours a week would need to raise about $2,400 per hour to finance the cost of a re-election campaign.

Lobbyists and special interest groups have often proven willing, even eager, to contribute. But they expect a return on that investment in the form of access. That could mean personal invitations to parties, functions, or even meetings with legislators.

An analysis by Mike McIntire and Michael Luo of the New York Times found that most of the major contributors to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, especially those who gave $100,000 or more, were later invited to the White House to meet the president.

Of course, the Obama administration, like those before it, deny that there is a link between contributions and access to the White House. But the facts suggest a different story. Many of President George W. Bush’s biggest campaign contributors won ambassadorships or other special favors, and President Clinton famously invited big donors to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom, a guest suite on the second floor of the White House.

Cases of outright corruption are rare, but it’s well known that lobbying firms working on behalf of wealthy clients routinely gain access to politicians, lavish them with gifts and special benefits, and then sway them to make minor changes to legislation or offer tax breaks favorable to their clients.

Jack Abramoff, once one of Washington’s highest-paid lobbyists, was convicted in 2006 for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. After four years in prison, he wrote a book, Capital Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, detailing how lobbyists go about buying powerful friends and influencing legislation.

“I think people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor, and that’s not the case,” Abramoff told 60 Minutes. In fact, members of Congress regularly accept gifts from influence-peddlers in what amounts to a form of legalized bribery. “It was done everyday,” he said, “and it’s still being done.”

The influence of money is nothing new in American politics. But not since the Gilded Age in the late 19th century has our political system been so inundated by corporate contributions and funding from secret sources. And the new era of big money has just begun.

The contributions that poured into the 2012 election—close to $3 billion, by some estimates—came largely as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In January 2010, a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit spending by corporations or other entities in candidate elections, because such limits violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

A subsequent court ruling helped to create “super PACs,” a new kind of political action committee that can collect money from individuals, corporations, and other groups to support or defeat political candidates.

Super PACs act in much the same way as political campaigns do, running ads, making calls, and sending out mailings. But unlike conventional campaigns, there is no limit on the amounts of money they can raise and spend.

Super PACs are required to disclose the sources of their contributions. But that doesn’t stop them from accepting donations from outside groups with secret donors. As a result, many well-heeled super PACs buy campaign ads with “dark money”—funds that can’t be traced to their original source.

The 2012 election cycle was shaped to an unprecedented degree by campaign ads created and paid for by super PACs. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, close to $1 billion was spent by outside groups trying to influence races around the country—a full 25 percent of which was dark money.

This means that corporations and other moneyed interests can now spend unlimited amounts of money supporting candidates aligned with their agendas and opposing those who don’t, all the while hiding their identity behind front groups.

Wealthy individuals and organizations may not be able to buy a politician or dictate the outcomes they want, but they influence the electoral landscape like never before. “If we don’t find some way to respond to this,” says former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, “it’s going to turn us into a plutocracy, where a very few powerful people control the public agenda.”

Many Americans insist that we must curb the influence of special interests and restrict the flow of big money into government to ensure that the good of the few never takes precedence over the good of the many. But there are some drawbacks to consider. As the Supreme Court made clear in its controversial Citizens United ruling, restricting the ability of corporations, unions and other groups to broadcast political messages or otherwise participate in the marketplace of ideas can be interpreted as a form of censorship.

The question is to what extent we are willing to curb the rights of a few in order to protect the common good.

I Madonnari

By Scott London — May 28, 2013

The I Madonnari Festival at Santa Barbara's Old Mission : Photo by Scott London

I Madonnari was the name given to street painters in 16th- and 17th-century Italy, itinerant artists who traveled from town to town and city to city rendering images of the Madonna on sidewalks and in public squares. Like street musicians, the “Madonna painters” supported themselves by small donations—usually coins thrown to them by appreciative passers-by and festival-goers. Using chalks and handmade pastels, the artists sometimes created works of remarkable majesty and scale. But the art was always ephemeral, vanishing with the first rain.

Today, the tradition of street painting lives on in cities across Europe and in a growing number of communities in North America. 2013 marked the 27th anniversary of the I Madonnari Festival in Santa Barbara, California. When it started in 1987, it was the only street painting event of its kind in the United States. Today, the three-day event, held each Memorial Day weekend in the plaza in front of Santa Barbara’s historic mission, draws crowds of 25,000 or more from around the world. The art ranges from small chalk drawings by local artists to large-scale street murals by nationally recognized street painters. There is also a special chalk-drawing area for young artists.

The I Madonnari Festival at Santa Barbara's Old Mission : Photo by Scott London

I Madonnari is a fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project, an innovative program that provides visual and performing arts education to public schools in and around Santa Barbara. At a time when arts education has been all but eliminated from school budgets, entrepreneurial communities have to take matters into their own hands. The I Madonnari Festival represents one of the more successful such initiatives—a community-building effort aimed at both making art and ensuring its survival in the local school system.

The 2013 festival just wrapped up. Yesterday, as the artists were putting the finishing touches on their work, a wild fire broke out in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. The skies filled with smoke and ash, partially obscuring the sun, as seen in the image above. For more of my photos from the event, you’ll find a collection here.

Vanishing Oasis

By Scott London — May 1, 2013

The Salton Sea's receding shoreline

I was back at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago and was stunned to see how quickly it’s drying up. Experts say the water level is currently dropping about seven inches per year. It may not seem like much, but it means the shoreline is receding fast, especially along the north and south shores.

The photos above were taken five years apart, almost to the day. As you can see in the bottom image, the water line has moved quite a distance in that short period of time. Elsewhere along the shore, homes that used to be on the lakefront are now hundreds of feet away from the water.

To say that the Salton Sea is an ecological problem would be an understatement. It’s more like a catastrophe. Dwindling inflows and rising salinity represent a very serious public health problem facing southern California. We’re also looking at the loss of one of North America’s most important migratory bird refuges.

The Salton Sea has been neglected for years, but the Obama administration recently earmarked $200,000 to study the situation and come up with a series of restoration proposals. It’s not much, but it’s a start. It means that perhaps there is enough political will to halt, if not exactly reverse, the process of environmental devastation.

I’ve been documenting the decline of the Salton Sea for several years now. I’ve gathered a collection of thirty photographs in a series titled “Vanishing Oasis.” You can view the images here.


On Photography, Burning Man and the Creative Process

By Scott London — March 14, 2013

ignite.me, a blog devoted to “art and forward-thinking ideas,” has just posted an interview with me in which I talk about photography, Burning Man, and my own creative process. I also share some thoughts on the profession of journalism, the art of dialogue, and the difference between crafting words and making images.

How do you take a wild and outrageously beautiful experience and translate that to a two-dimensional image? Scott London has done just that in his photographs of the incandescent saturnalia known as Burning Man. The Ignite.me team had the opportunity to interview Scott to learn more about his creative process, his vision and the philosophy that drives his innovative spirit.

Read the full interview here: Artist Interview with Scott London.

(Photo by Karen Kuehn)

Snow Over West Virginia

By Scott London — March 6, 2013

Winter is not over yet, at least not for those in the Midwest and Northeast. I’m in West Virginia wrapping up a ten-day road trip. A winter storm has pummeled the region over the last 24 hours. The locals here are used to snow, but it’s clearly an event all the same, especially this late in the season. Here’s an image of the Oglebay area, high above Wheeling, all covered in white.

On the Oscar Trail

By Scott London — February 9, 2013

It’s not Cannes or Sundance, but over the last three decades the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has established itself as one of America’s leading movie fests. The event typically draws about 70,000 people and features some 200 screenings, along with an impressive line-up of tributes, award shows, and panels with industry insiders.

But the big story each year revolves around the celebrities—the beautiful people who come to town and, for a few days, transform the place into the epicenter of the entertainment world. Given Santa Barbara’s proximity and deep ties to Hollywood, as well as the festival’s serendipitous timing—right in the middle of awards season—it’s no surprise the event has become a crucial stop on the Oscar trail.

The festival announces its line-up of awards and tributes in early January, before the annual Oscar nominations are revealed. The organizers have proven to be surprisingly prescient in recent years, often booking appearances with actors, directors and others in the industry who go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. In 2009, for example, the festival welcomed more than two dozen Oscar nominees.

But the festival’s knack for predicting winners can be attributed in no small part to the Hollywood publicity machine. Today celebrities and industry insiders routinely go on “Oscar tours” to generate buzz for their latest films, often backed by million-dollar advertising budgets. For Academy Award-contenders, an appearance in Santa Barbara can not only generate valuable publicity but improve the odds of a big win at the Oscars.

But it’s movie aficionados who are the big winners at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. For what could be better in the end than eleven full days of screenings, panels with prominent writers, producers, and directors, and tributes to the best and brightest in the business?

It was my fifth year covering the festival. I’ve posted a photoessay here.

On Collaboration

By Scott London — December 8, 2012

Tate: On CollaborationOn Collaboration is a new essay collection exploring various challenges, benefits, methodologies and approaches to collaborative practice. It brings together several general essays on collaboration—including a contribution of mine titled Building Collaborative Communities—as well as a half-dozen case studies of collaborative projects carried out in the U.K. under the auspices of Tate.

As I note in my piece, collaborative efforts tend to be loosely structured, highly adaptive, and inherently creative. As a form of joint decision-making and collective action, they represent one of the most promising ways that individuals, groups and organizations can work together for change because, unlike mere cooperation, they are based on advancing collectively-defined goals.

On Collaboration was edited by Marie Bak Mortensen and Judith Nesbitt and published this month by Tate, London.

The Art of Grafting

By Scott London — November 15, 2012

In horticulture, the art of grafting involves fusing the stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits of one plant with the rootstock of another. The process is especially useful with plants that can’t be propagated easily by seed.

The basic principle also applies to ideas. Sometimes the best way to introduce a new concept is to marry it to one that is already firmly established. The early scientists understood this when they depicted the atom as a microscopic solar system, or when the early web developers pitched the Internet as an “information superhighway.” A concept that is fuzzy or abstract often has a better chance of flourishing if combined with one that is already well-rooted.

What’s interesting to note is that grafting, as it was traditionally defined, meant “the healing in common of wounds.” It referred to the process by which the old and the new rub against each other. It was always a time-consuming and painful thing. But if a healing took place, common suffering could become the basis for a powerful and mutually sustaining bond.

Looking Ahead to the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize

By Scott London — October 8, 2012

The winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, October 12th. Speculation about who will win is heating up, as it does every year at this time. But the field seems to be wide open this time around, without any clear favorites or front-runners.

There were 231 nominations this year, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, of which 42 are organizations. The nominees are kept secret, but that doesn’t stop nominators from going public with their choices.

We know from news reports and press releases that various heads of state have been nominated, for example, among them President Bill Clinton, former Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl, and former Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti.

What is less widely known is that these nominations don’t carry any real weight since they could be made by anyone qualified to nominate. In the end, the decision will be made behind closed doors by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian parliament. What they will decide is anyone’s guess.

Among the other nominees this year are Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina and Memorial, the organization she founded working to document historical injustice and violence. This is the third year in a row that Gannushkina has been tipped as a strong contender for the Peace Prize and it would be well-deserved.

Also nominated are Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), a radio station, and its chief editor, Aleksei Venediktov. Echo of Moscow has been an important source of independent news and reporting at a time when the Russian government has been cracking down on the free press. (Aleksei Venediktov was profiled in an excellent piece in the New Yorker some years ago.)

A prize to either Memorial or Ekho Moskvy would be well-deserved — and noteworthy too, because in the 111-year history of the Nobel Peace Prize no award has ever been given to a journalist or news organization (with the possible exception of the 1935 prize to Carl Von Ossietzky).

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has significantly broadened the scope of what it considers peace work by giving awards to social entrepreneurs and environmentalists, among others. While it has been criticized for deviating from Nobel’s original intentions for the Peace Prize — a subject I explore at some length in this review, and elsewhere — I think the Norwegian committee is right in acknowledging that there are many pathways to peace and fraternity among nations.

My personal preference among recent nominees is the noted peace scholar and researcher Gene Sharp. He is perhaps the world’s leading expert on nonviolent revolution and has been described as the “Machiavelli of nonviolence.” His work, which combines historical analysis and political theory, shows that nonviolent grassroots action — of the kind that we have seen in many parts of the Arab world over the last year or two — can be a peaceful means of creating political change.

A Nobel Peace Prize to Gene Sharp would be the first of its kind to a scholar and researcher working for peace.

This year, Sharp was the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” That award was created in 1980 by Swedish journalist and philanthropist Jakob Von Uexkull and represents what many regard as a more grassroots peace prize for our times — one given to the kind of activists working for social and political change from the ground up, often in remote parts of the world, far from the media spotlight.

I met Jakob Von Uexkull some years ago to talk about the prize he created. He told me that when he created the prize, he never expected to give it to those also being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. But when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its prize to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004 — someone who had received the Right Livelihood Award 20 years earlier — it was as if Von Uexkull’s prize had come of age in a very real sense.

If Gene Sharp were to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, after already winning the Right Livelihood Award earlier this year, it would be a richly-deserved grand slam.


See also: