Over the last three decades, Burning Man has gone from a fringe countercultural experiment—one started by a handful of renegade artists and performers on Baker Beach in San Francisco—to a cultural phenomenon that now draws some 70,000 people to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year.
For all the talk about Burning Man going mainstream, it still represents something unique and extraordinary—a weeklong celebration of freeform creativity and radical self-expression. The event takes place in a temporary “city” some five miles wide that rises out of the dry lakebed for a week only to vanish again after the event is over. For a few brief days, the ephemeral metropolis known as Black Rock City ranks among the largest communities in the state of Nevada.
It’s a place of breathtaking diversity—a coming together of freethinking artists, dancers, performers, DJs, musicians, designers, and exhibitionists of every stripe. It’s also a place of whimsical art installations, startlingly decorated art cars, pulsating soundscapes and wacky theme camps, all set against an uncommonly beautiful natural backdrop.
I’ve been attending Burning Man for over a decade now. The experience never gets old. If anything, the enchantment and mystery seem to deepen a little each year. Some people complain that Burning Man gets a little less fun each time. I understand the sentiment—and sometimes share it (mostly when I’m hungover, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, or all three at once). But the fact is that the essential spirit of the event remains unchanged and that each trip out to the desert is, in some deep sense, restorative.
Like any creative project, my Burning Man photography has evolved over the years. But the basic impulse is still the same as it was at the beginning—to try in some small way to capture the creativity, the beauty, the wacky humor, the startling originality, and the sheer outrageous good fun of the event. I’m always gratified when non-burners appreciate the photos, but my primary goal is to share them with those who were there and, to whatever extent I can, contribute a little creativity of my own to the overall experience.
A few technical notes. This year I shot close to 6,000 frames over the course of 7 days. As in previous years, I used a combination of four cameras, all Canon DSLRs. I used just four lenses this time around, one zoom and three primes (the 16-35mm f/2.8, the 35mm f/1.4, the 85mm f/1.2, and the 135mm f/2). This wasn’t my plan going in. I brought about ten lenses with me to the event. But I found myself preferring the simplicity (and light weight) of the primes. Each of them is also unique in the way it handles light and creates soft, diffused backgrounds.
If you’re a photographer, it may surprise you to learn that nearly half the frames I shot this year were taken with the 16-35mm ultra-wide zoom. It was the lens mounted on my 5D Mark IV, which I had strapped over my shoulder everywhere I went for seven straight days. Over the years, I’ve been shifting toward wider and wider focal lengths. I think it makes for more interesting compositions, and it’s certainly more challenging (and therefore more rewarding) to work with.
I get a lot of questions about my gear and people wonder how I protect it in such a harsh environment. The short answer is that I don’t. This year, as in previous years, the cameras were fully exposed to the heat and dust all week. The key, I’ve found, is to use professional equipment with a degree of resistance to harsh weather and to avoid lens changes. I swear by my Canon equipment. In over a decade of shooting with it at Burning Man, I’ve never had any failures to speak of.
This year, I’d like to extend a special thank you to Duncan Rawlinson and Jeremy Guillory for their friendship, creativity and support. Thanks also to my beautiful campmates Quickdraw and Jazzy who not only helped build the temple this year and create a fabulous art car but somehow had energy left over to organize and manage a small camp too. I’m also grateful to my friend and collaborator Philippe Meicler, and his wife Ghislaine, and to Bobby Pin and the rest of the Documentation Team (it was my ninth year as part of the crew).
This was a challenging year in some respects. The intense heat took its toll on all of us, for one thing. I lost my bike toward the end of the week. (Was it stolen, or just “borrowed”?). As a photographer, this created serious logistical problems for me. But at Burning Man it seems like there are always 70,000 people standing at the ready to give you a helping hand.
As always, I’m especially 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. It takes a special patience to put up with tiresome photographers sticking their equipment in your face—pointing lenses at your tattoos, your necklaces, your derriere. I don’t take that permission for granted. My art, such as it is, wouldn’t be possible without that open consent and participation. So thank you.