Interview in Arts Illustrated

Arts Illustrated is a beautiful journal devoted to art, photography and graphic design. I was delighted and honored when the editors contacted me some months ago asking if they could feature a selection of my photographs along with an interview. The issue is now out and it features a full 12 pages of my photos, along with an interview in which I talk about my journey as a photographer, my sources of inspiration, and of course what it’s like to shoot at Burning Man. Here’s a short excerpt from the Q&A:

Arts Illustrated

Burning Man appears to be a very seductive and transformative place.

Yes, there is a sense when you arrive at Burning Man that you’re stepping out of one dimension and into another one — one teeming with possibility, suffused with beauty, and replete with freedoms that we don’t have in our everyday lives.

The rules and conventions of ordinary life simply don’t apply the same way. At Burning Man, you are whatever you happen to be doing or creating. So you can reinvent yourself in whatever guise you like. You can try on new identies and explore new modes of expression.

I have a friend who embodies a different character each day throughout the event. Like an actor, he doesn’t break character all week. Each character has its own personality, its own history, its own outfit. Some of his creations are extremely elaborate. He spends months planning it all down to the last detail.

As a photographer what appeals to you most and as an artist what do you connect with the most?

As a photographer, I feel that our culture is already heavily saturated with imagery. We see hundreds if not thousands of images every day. They flicker by in an unending stream and we barely stop to take notice. This means that it’s very difficult as a photographer to make an impact, to touch people and say something new, with a single image.

I don’t know of any good way around this problem. But as a photographer I’m always looking for moments that contain some element of the unexpected. I think those have a greater chance of speaking to people. The most powerful photographs, I believe, are those that surprise you and perhaps awaken in you a sense of possibility.

Burning Man is a wonderful place to make such images because things are never quite what they seem there. The foreign and the familiar are always coming together in arresting ways.

Some of the images from Burning Man make it appear like a very surreal place.

The word surreal is apt because there is always a sense at Burning Man that what you’re seeing is not quite real. A sixteenth-century Spanish galleon gliding across the desert floor. A group of bankers in dusty outfits holding umbrellas and briefcases. An old country church tipped on its axis, like a mouse-trap.

The Surrealist movement a century ago was a subversive attempt to redefine art and literature by erasing the line between dream and reality. The Surrealists sought to disrupt our habitual ways of seeing the world by juxtaposing contradictory images and bringing together seemingly unrelated frames of reference.

Like much of the art and writing from the Surrealist period, what you see at Burning Man can be startling, witty, unconventional, and, in some deep sense, eye-opening.

How easy or difficult is it to capture people and get them to participate in your visual chronicle?

It has gotten easier over the years as my confidence has grown. In the beginning, I was wary of getting too close to my subjects. My training as a journalist had emphasized objectivity — the idea that you must faithfully record events and document people’s lives but without interfering or affecting them in any significant way.

This ethos may work well for photojournalists covering the news. But it doesn’t work at Burning Man. In fact, it violates one of the essential principles of the event — the notion that each of us is a participant rather than a spectator.

To participate fully meant that I had to step out from behind the lens and create images, not stand by and wait for something interesting to happen. So I’ve adopted a more participatory approach over the years. My best images now come from working with people to create images that can stand on their own. It’s more collaborative, more creative, and a lot more enriching.

Arts Illustrated Interview with Scott London

On Photography and the Creative Process

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)

It’s Nice That

Earlier this week I was interviewed by It’s Nice That about my Burning Man photography. It’s Nice That is a beautiful and well-curated art magazine and website based in London. The interview appeared along with about a dozen of my photographs. Since it was edited for length, I’m including the complete exchange below.

Neverwas Haul - A Photo from Burning Man by Scott London

You’ve been documenting Burning Man for the last eight years. Why do you find it so compelling to document?

Burning Man is one of the most interesting events in the world, in my experience, but also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite an art festival, not quite a desert rave, and not quite a social experiment, but something of all three. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s organized around creativity and self-expression. The idea is to fully immerse and express yourself in some creative capacity — through building installations, making art, playing music, dressing up, walking on stilts, spinning fire, or simply being beautiful. It means that it’s an endlessly fascinating place where you never know what to expect and surprise awaits you at every turn.

The scale and the ephemeral nature of the event must be hard to communicate to people who haven’t been there.

Yes, there is no way to convey the sheer immensity of Burning Man to someone who has never been there. There is also something rather dreamlike and enchanting about the way it rises out of the open desert for a few brief days only to vanish again after the event is over. Toward the end of the week, much of the infrastructure — including the 40-foot effigy from which Burning Man takes its name — goes up in flames.

Have you noticed it changing and evolving over the years?

When the event got its start 25 years ago, it was little more than a bonfire on a beach in San Francisco. It moved to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada some years later but was still relatively small and unstructured. For many participants, the appeal of the desert was that there were no rules. If you wanted to shoot guns, play with fire, or blow up cars, there was no one to stop you. But as the event grew, so did the need for order and safety. Today the event attracts over 50,000 people from all over the world. It’s highly organized and tightly run, and perhaps a little less fun. Old-timers complain that the anarchy and lawlessness of the early days has been lost.

Do you recognise people when you go back each year?

Yes, a lot of people return to Burning Man year after year. I’ve developed some quite special and enduring friendships there. It’s also allowed me to explore the anthropology of the event — the way people’s perspectives change over time. This is reflected in some of my photographs of artists and their installations, for example, which show how their creative vision has evolved and transformed.

Would you describe yourself foremost as a photographer or a journalist/writer?

I would say that my journalism takes different forms depending on the nature of the project. I started my career in radio and still think that’s the best medium for conversation and storytelling. Over time I shifted to print and devoted myself more to writing articles and books. Print excels as a medium for presenting facts, analysis, and ideas. In recent years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of photojournalism. Though I learned photography as a kid and studied it in college, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered how powerful it can be.

Burning Man has helped me in that process. When I first attended the event, I was struck by the sheer inadequacy of words. Photography seemed like a more powerful medium for documenting the experience. Photographs convey but don’t interpret. At their best, they are very intimate. They capture the imagination and speak to the heart, but without saying a word.