Burning Man 2015 will be remembered for the wind, the dust, and the unseasonably chilly temperatures. But it was also a year of first-rate art installations, stunning fire performances, startling art cars, burning pianos flying through the air, and much else besides. It was my 4th year covering the event for Rolling Stone and if you head over to their site you’ll find about 20 images of mine gathered under the heading, See Trippy, Surreal Photos From Burning Man 2015. Some of the same images also appear here (but without the pesky ads!), along with about 80 others that try to capture something of the art, the people, and the performances from an all-around incredible week.
This week, the Pocko Times is showcasing my Burning Man photographs in a special feature that includes more than 30 photos and an extended interview about the project.
The Pocko Times began as a large format print magazine devoted to art, photography and ideas. It has now evolved into what they describe as “a curated platform of innovative ideas and artist endeavours” — an online platform of sorts showcasing talented individuals with a unique perspective about the world through their work.
It was a delight and an honor to to be profiled. You can read the interview and see the photos here: pocko.com.
Over the next week, I’ll be taking over the Instagram feed for Color Services, a wonderful photo lab I’ve been working with for over 10 years now. Not exactly “taking over,” more like guest hosting. They’ve invited me to share some of my favorite images from the past few years, along with some new stuff. If you’re on Instagram, I hope you can follow along: @colorservices
UPDATE (July 31, 2015):
Thanks to Gabe, Glen, Linda and the rest of the team at Color Services for letting me take the reins for a week. To read their blog entry about the takeover and see some of the photos that I posted, head over to the Color Services Blog.
I recently updated my equipment page — see What’s in the Camera Bag? — and it struck me that I had given short shrift to one of my most cherished pieces of equipment, the 50mm f/1.4. This is a lens that I don’t often use in my professional work but that nevertheless serves as a wonderful all-purpose everyday lens. In fact, I consider it essential to my photography and rarely leave home without it.
My love affair with the 50mm f/1.4 traces back to my earliest days as a photographer. The first camera I ever owned, a Pentax MV-1, came with a 50mm f/1.4 attached. For years it was the only lens I ever used.
As almost any photographer will tell you, the 50mm focal length represents a “normal” field of view on a 35mm film camera or full-frame digital SLR. It’s very close to how the human eye takes in the world. A 50mm is not exactly wide, but often wide enough if you take a step back. It’s not long, but long enough for most kinds of shooting—and certainly for making portraits.
When I bought my first digital SLR, I picked up a Canon 50mm f/1.4 to go with it. That was ten years ago and I still use the lens all the time.
Canon makes the the very same 50mm today, and it still sells for under $400. In the often pricey world of digital photography, I consider that a bargain. And, as I’ll explain in a moment, if you’re considering a 50mm this might be an especially good time to get one.
Meditation Mount in Ojai (50mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 100)
I carry the lens around with me almost everywhere I go. It fits on my Canon 6D, just as it used to fit on my original 5D some years ago, and, before that, the 20D and Digital Rebel. Many times it’s the only lens in the bag. For street photography, casual portraits, and just about anything else that catches my eye, it’s simply the best choice.
Let’s be clear, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the best lens in any particular category. But because it does so many things so well, it happens to be one of the most versatile lenses in Canon’s extensive lineup. And because it excels in low-light conditions—from dimly lit rooms to dark concert halls to parties that carry on late into the night—it’s also happens to be one of the most useful lenses for everyday photography.
Fire Fingers (50mm, f/2.2, 1/500, ISO 400)
Among Canon lenses, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the sharpest tool in the shed. But it’s still very sharp, especially stopped down to, say, f/5.6 or f/8.
It doesn’t have the widest aperture and therefore doesn’t let in the most light or create the most dramatic out-of-focus areas. But close enough.
And it doesn’t have the same rugged build quality and smooth and precise auto-focusing that its more expensive counterpart has. But never mind. It’s plenty good.
Here’s the key point: it does all these things while weighing a mere ten ounces, fitting snugly into the palm of your hand, and costing a fraction of what other lenses cost.
Harper the cat (50mm, f/1.4, 1/1250, ISO 100)
I think the days of the big, heavy SLR are over. Cameras are shrinking. Today it simply doesn’t make sense to carry around a camera unless it’s light, compact and portable. Unfortunately, the most versatile zoom lenses are often the biggest and heaviest.
For me, the 50mm f/1.4 is a better alternative in most situations. It’s tiny and it’s light. You can take it anywhere and (provided you have it mounted on a smaller camera like the 6D) be as inconspicuous as ever.
Rumors have been circulating in recent months that Canon is about to revamp its line of 50mm lenses, perhaps doing away with the 50mm f/1.4 altogether. That would be a shame. And it means there might not be a better time to get one if you don’t already own it.
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:
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.