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:

Burning Man 2012

By Scott London — September 9, 2012

The Man Goes Up in Flames at Burning Man 2012

I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man 2012. It was a year of wind and dust and even some rain, which made for some interesting photography but was physically quite challenging. I took almost 3,000 pictures over the course of 8 days.

This year I shot on assignment for Rolling Stone. You can view 25 of my images here: “Burning Man 2012: Magic Mushrooms, Nude Dancers, Wild Infernos and More.” You’ll find two additional sets as well: “More Scenes from Burning Man 2012,” and “Faces of Burning Man 2012.”

I’m now busy putting together my customary set of 100 photos from the event. I hope to have that up very soon. (See below.)

In the meantime, my photography has appeared in a number of recent publications:

  • The October issue of Outside Magazine features a lengthy piece about Burning Man titled, appropriately enough, “Hot Mess.” Written by Brad Wieners, the article includes images from photographers George Post, Steward Harvey, and myself.
  • The current issue of Gateway Magazine, the in-flight magazine of China’s largest airline, includes an 8-page spread featuring my work. A photograph of artist David Boyer’s installation “School of Blue Bottle Noses,” which I took in 2009, appears on the cover. You can view the full issue online here (my photos start on page 218).
  • The Santa Cruz newspaper Good Times ran a terrific cover story by Elizabeth Limbach recently with photos by Kyer Wiltshire and myself. The piece is called “Beyond Black Rock City” and is available here (the online version doesn’t have all of the images from the print edition, I’m sorry to say).
  • The South African magazine One Small Seed has a 7-page spread about Burning Man in its current issue with 10 of my photographs. You can view the story in PDF format here.
  • Popular Mechanics ran a feature back in May called “10 Wild Art Cars from Burning Man” using my images. What’s nice about this piece is that they assigned a writer to it who cobbled together interesting and detailed captions about how each art car was built.
  • I also have a spread in the current issue of Marie Claire Brazil, but I haven’t managed to get copies of it yet and it doesn’t appear to be available online.

UPDATE (September 11, 2012): My 2012 photos are now online — view the set here.

Honoring the Late James Hillman

By Scott London — July 12, 2012

The Sun MagazineThe current issue of The Sun magazine includes an interview I did with the late psychologist James Hillman. Hillman passed away last October at the age of 85 and to honor him and his contribution to the world of ideas, the magazine is reprinting portions of several interviews originally published in the 1990s and early 2000s.

My interview with Hillman took place in November 1996. His book, The Soul’s Code, had just been published. The Sunday we met it had debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list (thanks in large part to an appearance he made on the Oprah Winfrey show). Hillman had authored more than a dozen books on a variety of subjects but this was his first bestseller. When we met, he seemed especially buoyant and good-natured.

Even so, he was a notoriously prickly interview subject, someone who disdained journalists and disliked answering questions. He agreed to an interview, he told me, because he had something important to say in the book. Ideas are like children, he said, “and you should try to get your children into the world if possible, to defend them and help them along.” It isn’t enough “just to write and throw it out into the world — it’s useful to have to put yourself out there a little bit for what you believe.”

The conversation ranged widely. We talked about the shortcomings of conventional psychology, the question of character and destiny, and how to find and follow your calling in life. The best moments came at the end when Hillman riffed on the pursuit of happiness.

The interview aired on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. and on global shortwave, and later found its way into the pages of The Sun magazine. It was subsequently translated into Spanish and Italian and published elsewhere as well.

I still regard it as one of the finest interviews I’ve done. It shattered many ideas I had carried with me for a long time and Hillman’s comments festered in my mind, eventually opening up new vistas of understanding. He seemed to have that effect on people.

You can read the interview in The Sun here. If you pick up a print copy of the magazine, be sure to check out the brilliant personal tribute from Hillman’s friend and writing colleague Michael Ventura as well.

Remembering Elinor Ostrom

By Scott London — June 12, 2012

I was saddened by the news that Elinor Ostrom passed away today. She was the winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (along with Oliver Williamson). She and I shared a common connection to the Kettering Foundation, but I first discovered her work some 20 years ago after the release of her seminal book Governing the Commons.

Elinor Ostrom was a maverick, someone who challenged conventional wisdom in political science and economics. By awarding her the Nobel Prize in Economics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did something rather remarkable — it acknowledged the need for new models and new ways of thinking in economics. It was a daring choice, and I think a very good one.

She was the first woman to win the economics prize, which is significant. And with the exception of the prize to Amartya Sen (for his work on welfare economics) it was one of the few awards that recognized alternatives to traditional neoclassical economics.

Ostrom showed that the three dominant economic models used for dealing with collective resource management — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action — were all inadequate. They were not necessarily wrong, but the conditions under which they held were very specific. 

Her research suggested that there were other viable systems for managing shared resources. For example, she looked at Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines that are based on sound principles of collective decision-making that are both democratic and empowering to ordinary people.

The subject of her research had long been considered peripheral to the main business of economics. But today, as we face a global recession and a very serious environmental crisis, her work has special resonance. It offers a roadmap for making resource management more democratic, more participatory, more community-based, and above all more responsive to ordinary citizens.

For more on Elinor Ostrom:

Bill Drayton on Becoming a Changemaker

By Scott London — May 25, 2012

Bill Drayton“An invasion of armies can be resisted,” said Victor Hugo, “but not an idea whose time has come.” This certainly holds true for social entrepreneurship, an idea that has attracted an enormous amount of attention—to say nothing of money and talent—in recent years.

The rise of social entrepreneurship reflects a growing sense today that many of the most promising solutions to global problems don’t necessarily depend on charity, government aid, or foundation grants. They come from individuals at the grassroots level willing to bring entrepreneurial thinking to bear on some of our toughest social problems.

No one has done more to put social entrepreneurship on the map than Bill Drayton. In fact, he’s widely credited with having coined the term in the early 1980s. He’s the CEO and founder of Ashoka, a global association of social innovators. Since 1981, the organization has elected some 3,000 leading social entrepreneurs as Ashoka Fellows, providing them with living stipends, professional support, and access to an outstanding global network of peers.

I caught up with him some weeks ago in Oslo, Norway, to talk about the movement he started and how it’s evolving. He told me that we live in a world structured around efficiency and repetition, yet the rate of change today is accelerating to the point where our institutions can no longer adapt fast enough. The only way to respond to the challenges we face is to become an agent of transformation and renewal.

“The biggest problem we have is that people don’t yet see the change that’s going on,” Drayton explained. “Once people understand that we are moving from a world of repetition to a world of change, then the role of the social entrepreneur becomes obvious. You cannot have the problems outrun the solutions when everyone is a changemaker. We become like smart white blood cells. We see a problem and move right to taking care of it.”

You can read the full interview with Drayton here.

For more on this topic, also check out “Riding the Rapids,” an interview I did some years ago with the late British economist Robert Theobald.