Burning Man 2017

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.

Ilumina, and art installation at Burning Man 2017

Ilumina

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.

Give me the splendid silent sun

“Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling.”

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.

The man goes up in flames

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.

Check out 100 of my favorite images from Burning Man 2017 here

Braving the dust at Burning Man 2017. Photo by the great John Curley

Lightning in a Bottle

LiB 2017

It was my first time at Lightning in a Bottle, the annual festival held on the shores of Lake San Antonio in central California. My first thought on arriving at the event had nothing to do with the gorgeous backdrop, the beautiful people, or the sweet vibe. It was more like, “Where have I been all these years?”

Lightning in a Bottle is a project of the DoLab, a Los Angeles-based production company. This year they invited me to be part of their in-house media team as one of the official photographers.

I got to work side-by-side with some incredible talents, photographers whose work I’ve admired for years. I also got to revisit the feeling of being a newbie, which is humbling but also good for the spirit.

Being at the event was a rich experience, especially as I moved away from the big sound stages and peformance venues. Farther afield, I discovered art installations, sacred spaces, lectures and panel discussions, movement classes, folks gathering in the shade of large oak trees to talk philosophy or meditate together.

More than once I had the feeling that this may be something like what people experienced back in the Summer of Love—a convergence of free spirits who come not just to dance and have a good time but to also explore an expanded concept of individual consciousness and human possibility.

It seemed fitting, too, that the event is held just down the road from the Esalen Institute, widely regarded as the birthplace of the human potential movement. I’ve spent a lot of time at Esalen tracing some of the ideas that were spawned there and how they have shaped our culture over the last half-century (Here’s a recent article of mine on Esalen).

Lightning in a Bottle is a festival, of course, not an institute. But it strikes me that some of today’s festivals—Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle chief among them—are helping to create a context for new ideas of community, participation, creativity, and social and personal transformation.

Here are a handful of my photos. For more, check out the expanded set on Facebook.

 

The Beacon  Leoj  Jessie Jonny  Damian  Johna Goldenflame  Live Free  Meditation Lookout  Tall Ships

Live Q&A at the Press Room

We had a good turnout for the opening of my photography exhibit “Fire and Dust” at the Press Club in Monterey last week. The event included a live interview with Bradley Zeve of the Monterey County Weekly and some great questions from the audience.

Thanks to Bradley for hosting and moderating the discussion (and for the thoughtful questions) and to Jack Peterson of the Media Center for Art Education and Technology for taping the event for broadcast (to be aired on MCAET throughout March and April — check listings here).

Below is an edited 51-minute video of our conversation.

On Editing, Workflow, Gear and Other Questions

Photography workflow using Photo Mechanic and Adobe Lightroom

Since I have comments turned off on the blog, I’m sharing some recent questions that have come in from readers, along with my replies.

As an amateur photographer always looking for ways to improve, I was wondering if you might share some advice or recommend techniques for post production. The land and sky in your shots hold such gravitas. Any advice at all is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the feedback. As I see it, no amount of post-processing can salvage a mediocre photo. So my advice is to work on getting it right in camera. The rest comes naturally. When the light is good, the composition works, and the photograph suggests a story or evokes a feeling, then the editing process is very straightforward: correct color, adjust contrast, and dodge and burn as needed to direct the eye to the focal point of the image, if there is one.

Can you describe your basic workflow once you’ve finished a shoot?

First I copy the images to my computer and make a backup. Then I review all the images. I use Photo Mechanic for both these tasks. (Lightroom is too slow and clunky for the reviewing and culling process, in my view.) I also enter most of my metadata for the shoot at this point. Once I’ve pared down, tagged, and rated or color-coded the set based on my preferences, I import the files into Lightroom. From there I organize and manage the images, typically making simple corrections (such as white balance and exposure adjustments) on the fly. Key images, those to be delivered to the client or otherwise shared, all get processed using Photoshop. Much of that work is actually done in Adobe Camera Raw, where I spend the bulk of my editing time (inside Photoshop). The files are then exported, reviewed, and delivered.

After seeing your setup, I’m thinking about getting the Canon 6D as a second camera. I realized if I’m shooting an event like the Blue Angels, wild stallions, or air balloons, how convenient it would be to not have to change lenses all the time. 

Yes, having a second (or third) camera body at events is essential to the way I work. If I were you, I’d hold off on buying a 6D though, because Canon will soon be announcing a new version of the camera, one that hopefully addresses what I see as its only real shortcoming—the poor autofocus system.

Which Think Tank shoulder bag do you have?

Mine is the Retrospective 10, which is awesome.

I have looked in utter admiration at your photography from Burning Man through the years. I’m looking to take an Olympus OM-D E-M1 to this year’s event. The only question I have is if you were to take only one lens to the event, which one would this be?

Thank you. I have a simple and straightforward answer for you: the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro. I think it’s the perfect one-lens solution for Burning Man.

I have followed your art online and bought the Burning Man book, both of which I admire very much. I am finally planning on attending and would bring my camera gear. I am bringing 2-3 small mirrorless cameras. My question concerns batteries and accessories. With no electrical do you bring a handful of charged batteries? Are there any special accessories you think are indispensable for shooting beyond the ordinary camera/lenses? I’ve heard you have to register the cameras and sign waivers etc. Is there anything special I should know or do to make my effort successful?

If you don’t have access to a generator or other power source, I would recommend bringing an off-the-grid battery (such as a deep-cycle car battery) to keep your cameras, phone and other gadgets charged). In a pinch, you can always charge your batteries using an inexpensive inverter for your car. And if all else fails, you can recharge your batteries at Media Mecca. They have charging stations for journalists and photographers. You’re right, you do need to register your cameras if you plan to publish or otherwise share your photos with the world. Burning Man’s image use policies apply to all published images, but not to use of photos on social media. Don’t worry, you can always request permission after the fact, if need be. Other things that might be useful to bring include compressed air and pre-moistened lens wipes. I always carry large Zip-Loc bags for my cameras in case I’m caught in a whiteout (which happens pretty much all the time!). Other things to consider bringing: business cards for giving to people when you take their picture, and a small notebook for jotting down people’s contact info and/or carrying releases. Have you seen Matt Freedman’s photographer’s guide to Burning Man? You’ll find it here.

Looks like you have at least a drone and the image quality makes me want to believe you’re running around with a Nikon D-Infinity with auto-focusable Zeiss ultra prime glass (exists only for you).

That’s wonderful and hilarious. If only!

Three Essential Zooms

Lenses

It takes more than great equipment to make a great image. You need artistry, skill, and often a bit of luck. But having the right gear is an important part of the equation.

I get a lot of questions about what’s in my camera bag. Here’s a look at three zoom lenses that are critical to the work I do in the field. They are not the only lenses I use — in fact, I have a special love for fixed-length primes, which I’ll talk about in a future post — but when I’m on assignment, shooting events, or doing spot news coverage, chances are that one of the following three lenses is mounted on my camera.

canon16-35Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. Wide-angle lenses are challenging to work with. They require a sophisticated understanding of composition compared to standard lenses. It has taken me time to learn how to shoot wide — and to develop the confidence to get really close to the action. But this lens is a joy to use and has produced some of my all-time best images. Of the three lenses listed here, it’s the softest and produces the highest degree of distortion, especially in the corners. Doesn’t matter. It’s a rock-solid performer, one that produces consistently excellent results, images draw you in with their rich detail and stunning colors. Aside from the versatile zoom range, two things I especially like about this lens are 1) its relatively light weight (about one and a half pounds with UV filter, caps and hood), and 2) its incredible sunstar effects when stopped down (a function of its having just 7, rather than the usual 8 or 9, diaphragm blades) which means I can shoot directly into the sun, for example, or make sparkling long-exposures after dark.

canon24-70Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. Canon released this lens in late 2012, replacing the original 24-70mm f/2.8 L, which I had carried around in my bag for about 8 years. While that lens was incredibly rugged and dependable, it was never much fun to use. In fact, even though it was probably the lens I used the most, it was the one I loved the least. When Canon came out with the new version, I had mixed feelings. It cost a fortune, for one thing. How could I justify spending so much on a lens that seemed so, well, plain and ordinary? But every review I read made it clear that the new 24-70mm was in a class of its own. And the image comparisons between the old and new versions made the choice obvious. I’ve now had the lens for more than three years and I can safely say that it’s the most versatile and optically superior piece of glass I own. It works for everything from product shots to press conferences to portrait shoots, producing rich, pleasing images that almost always impress with their clarity and detail. Whenever I’m limited to working with a single lens, this is always my first choice.

canon70-200Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L. Just about every photojournalist worth his or her salt carries a 70-200mm telephoto lens. It’s just hard to manage an assignment without it. Over the past decade, my 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens has gone with me almost everywhere. It’s heavy, weighing in at well over 3 pounds with the UV filter, caps and hood (not to mention the weighty tripod collar). But there’s no replacement when it comes to shooting concerts, lectures, plays, and other events where you need a close-up or a little extra reach. The power of the 200mm focal length is that it compresses distance, making it ideal for compositions that bring together multiple elements in the frame, making them appear closer to each other than they really are. Shot wide open, the 70-200mm can also help separate a subject from its background, making it perfectly suited for long portrait work. It has a very flattering effect on the human face and tends to produce beautifully out-of-focus backgrounds. It used to be my go-to portrait lens. But in recent years I’ve shifted toward shorter focal lengths which force you to get closer to your subject and therfore create more intimate images. The most common version of the lens has image stabilization, but I prefer the one without. I still have a steady hand and like the reduced weight of the non-stabilized version.

In addition to these three zooms, I have a collection of other lenses that serve a variety of special purposes, from a 15mm fisheye and a 35mm f/1.4 to a 85mm f/1.2 and 135mm f/2. More on these in a future post.

Like many photographers, I fantasize about owning other lenses. But the reality is that I already have more gear than I can carry in most situations. And when I need something in particular — such as a 400mm f/2.8 to shoot, say, a concert — I simply rent it.