Burning Man 2016

Burning Man 2016 by Scott London

I’m still shaking off the dust and getting my bearings after an intense but beautiful week at Burning Man 2016. We were blessed with beautiful skies and gorgeous light for much of the week, but also winds and dust—lots and lots of dust, as you can see in this shot of my cameras.

It’s hard to believe, but this marked the 30th anniversary of an event that has gone from a fringe countercultural experiment, one started by a handful of artists, performers, dreamers and misfits on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986, 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 rather rare and wonderful—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 a dry lakebed toward summer’s end, 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.

It was my 13th year on the playa. Burning Man never gets old. If anything, the enchantment and mystery seems to deepen a little each year. Some complain that the event gets a little less fun each time. I understand those sentiments and sometimes share them (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.

It’s safe to say that my photography has changed and evolved over the years. But the basic impulse is still to try in some small way to capture the beauty, the creativity, the whimsy, the madness and the sheer outrageous good fun of it all. I’m always gratified when non-burners appreciate the photos, but my primary goal is to share them with those who were at the event and, to whatever extent I can, contribute a little creativity of my own to the overall experience.

Last month saw the publication of a new and expanded edition of our book Burning Man: Art on Fire (with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal). The first edition, which came out in 2014, went through several printings, garnered excellent reviews, and—to our amazement—even topped the Amazon bestseller lists in several categories. It made sense to issue a second edition—to bring it up to date, yes, but also to rectify some of the mistakes and omissions from the first edition. Like the original, the new version was a collaborative effort in every sense. It means that my own creative input was limited. But the book does contain a lot of my images—about 150 by my count—so, for better or worse, it reflects a perspective on the event refracted through my own particular lens.

This year I had the pleasure of working with CNN on a feature about the art cars of Burning Man. The piece includes 20 of my photos of mind-blowing and otherworldly creations (like El Pulpo Mecanico, at left, the flame-throwing octopus on wheels by artist Duane Flatmo) along with an article by Stephy Chung and a Q&A in which I talk about my fascination with these vehicles and the artists who created them. Check out Burning Man’s Mutant Vehicles Eat Dust…and People? (See also Boing Boing and Gearheads 4 Life for additional commentary on the photos and the art cars.)

If you’re interested in more of my reflections on why I love making pictures at Burning Man, check out this 3-minute video clip produced by Discovery’s This Happened Here. I also say more about my Burning Man photography in an in-depth interview made last year with the magazine Pocko Times.

A few technical notes. This year, I shot a total of about 5,000 frames over the course of 6 days. As in previous years, I used a combination of Canon DSLRs. I brought out four this year, each with a dedicated lens. This is my preferred way of avoiding lens changes and not subjecting the cameras to excessive alkali dust. I also brought a film camera this year, but as things turned out it never left the bag. What was different this year? A telephoto lens I had formerly relied on quite heavily—Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 L—never got used this time around. It was a conscious, and I think quite successful, attempt to get a little closer to the action.

I get a lot of questions about my gear and people wonder how I protect it in such a harsh environment. My short answer is that I keep my cameras in heavy-duty plastic bags and carry a camera bag that zips up. This provide some protection from the dust. But the real key, I’ve found, is to use professional equipment with a degree of resistance to dust, water and heat. I love my Canons and in over a decade of shooting with them at Burning Man, I’ve never had any failures to speak of.

This year, I worked closely with Philippe Meicler, a wonderful French videographer, to capture an aerial perspective of Burning Man. If you like my still images shot with a drone, be sure to check out his amazing 5-minute video here. Special thanks to Philippe and his lovely wife, Ghislaine—a great photographer in her own right (you can view her images from the event here.)

This year, I’d also like to extend a special thank you Jonathan Gavzer, Mike Calabrese, Duncan Rawlinson, George Post, Maria Partridge, and especially my campmates Jeremy and Jazzy for taking such good care of me as I was nursing a pesky shoulder injury. I very nearly left the event at the beginning of the week because of the pain. I opted to stay in the end, in no small part thanks to their care, support and encouragement.

As always, I’m also 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, would not be possible without that open consent and participation. So thank you.

Check out this year’s photos here: Burning Man 2016

Photographer Scott London on his bike at Burning Man 2016

On my bike at Burning Man 2016. (Photo by Duncan Rawlinson)

Peace at Heart

Peace at Heart

The Nobel Peace Prize has been an ongoing project of mine for the past ten or so years. I’ve been covering the laureates and the annual award ceremonies, concerts, and other events.

My work is included in a new book, Peace at Heart, edited by Linda Netland and published by the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.

For more of my photos from the project, check out The Nobel Peace Prize

Wired’s Preview of Burning Man 2015

In the new issue of Wired Magazine, fellow photographer Sidney Erthal and I offer some thoughts about our favorite Burning Man art pieces from the past along with installations we’re looking forward to seeing at this year’s event, which kicks off in less than two weeks.

“A five-storey mesh dancer, a giant game of fire Tetris and — if rumours are to be believed — a hacked Boeing 747 are just a few of the oversized artworks on show at Burning Man (August 30 to September 7),” writes Oliver Franklin-Wallis. “But here, such awe-inspiring projects are the norm — the Nevada desert festival has a reputation as an alt-art showcase. ‘It’s a laboratory for creativity,’ says Scott London, a long-time photographer of the event who, with fellow snapper Sidney Erthal and author Jennifer Raiser, has collaborated on Burning Man: Art on Fire (Race Point Publishing).”

The piece features about a dozen of our photos. You’ll find the images and full text online: http://wired.uk/JFmODc


Painted Desert Shoot

I’m back from a shoot in Arizona’s Painted Desert with the performance group Vessel. It’s part of a collaboration we’re working on for the Mesa Arts Center. Combining photography, costume design, and performance art, the interactive piece will be presented next month at the Spark! Festival.

Photoshoots in the desert are always iffy, especially when they involve a half dozen people, travel, permits and other logistical challenges—to say nothing of the fact that we were shooting in the high desert in the dead of winter when it can get mighty cold and windy.

But somehow all the pieces came together just right. We even got lucky with the light, especially around sunset, when everything seemed to be bathed in golden hues.

I’ll have more images from this project to share soon. Please stay tuned.

A View From the Lake Bed

Cachuma Lake

Because of the record drought in California, Cachuma Lake has been drying up. It’s now just a fraction of its usual size. Here is a self-portrait where I’m standing on the the exposed lake bed admiring a giant root of some kind.

I’m working on a photo essay documenting the drought. More on that soon…