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.
Much has already been written about the Oregon Eclipse gathering at Big Summit Prairie. The event brought together more than 30,000 people for a week of music, art, and ideas—and of course to witness the total solar eclipse of 2017.
It was described by some as a kind of Woodstock for the 21st century. It certainly conjured up images of the Summer of Love, with it’s focus on peace, love, and transformation and its rejection of the social and political status quo.
Others compared it to the Kumbh Mela—the famously massive spiritual pilgrimage that takes place in India every few years. The Oregon convergence certainly felt historic—in significance, if not in scale.
I doubt the story of Oregon Eclipse can be adequately told except with the help of pictures. It was organized around a celestial phenomenon—one that gave us all a sense of experiencing something rare and wonderous together. That moment, when 30,000 of us gathered on a big field to take it all in, can scarcely be described in words.
There was more to the event than just the eclipse. It was also a coming together of artists, innovators, and visionary types of all kinds to collaborate, inspire and create. Photos, at their best, capture that better than mere words.
Here are a few of mine, made over the course of four days. As a member of the Symbiosis crew, my job was to help document the event as it unfolded. It was a tough assignment, but an endlessly fascinating one.
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.
I’m back from two beautiful and amazing weeks in South Africa. It was my first time attending AfrikaBurn, an event now in its tenth year that draws thousands of artists, fire performers, costume designers, DJs, musicians, stilt walkers, body-painters, and countless other creative types, most of them from South Africa, but increasingly from other parts of Africa and beyond as well.
AfrikaBurn is sometimes described as a festival or party in the desert. But it would be truer to call it an experiment in creative self-expression. Each year at the end of April, thousands come together in the Tankwa Karoo desert to create large-scale art installations, build outlandish vehicles, organize theme camps, make music, put on performances, dress up in wild outfits, and—as the name suggests—burn stuff to the ground.
The comparisons to Burning Man are inevitable, but I find that AfrikaBurn has its own unique character and sensibility. I love that it’s still relatively small-time and intimate. There’s a freewheeling atmosphere and a kind of laissez-faire openness I’ve never experienced in over a decade of attending Burning Man. It could be that some rules don’t exist simply because there hasn’t been a need for them. Or, it may owe something to the fact that South Africa is an altogether different culture. In any case, it made a deep impression.
Special thanks to my friend, fellow photographer, and wonderful travel companion Duncan Rawlinson. The two of us hatched the idea of going to AfrikaBurn more or less at the last minute, and it’s safe to say neither of us would have made the trip alone. If you haven’t seen Duncan’s photos yet, be sure to check them out here. I’m also grateful to the many wonderful burners who freely consented to let me photograph them in the act of dancing, stilt-walking, hooping, making art, or simply being beautiful. Thank you.
A few technical notes. I shot about 2,500 images over the course of six days. As always, I brought two cameras and shot with a variety of lenses. Looking over the stats on the plane home, I was surprised to see that the lens that got the most use was my 16-35mm wide-angle, not one I normally use that much. But it could be that the wide open spaces of the desert, especially combined with the dramatic cloud patterns and incredible play of light and shadow, favored a wider-than-normal perspective. That lens was followed closely by the 85mm, my preferred portrait lens, and the 35mm.
Here’s my set of 100 personal favorites — AfrikaBurn 2017
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.
It’s weird to see Shepard Fairey’s work come down and my own go up. I’ve been a fan of his art for a long, long time.
We’re kicking off a new show today, this one in Monterey. It’s called “Fire and Dust” and features a decade of my Burning Man photography.
Seems like there are a lot of people involved. There is a lot of enthusiasm about the show. Hopefully it will translate into a decent turnout at the reception and live Q&A in two weeks.
If you happen to be in or near Monterey on March 10th, I hope you’ll come by!
The show itself runs through April 15th.
More info below…
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!
The Oscar nominations for 2017 have just been announced. One thing I’ve learned from hanging out on the Oscar trail is that Academy Award nominations often say more about the Hollywood publicity machine than they do about the relative talents of the actors and other nominees. (More on that in my photo essay “On the Oscar Trail.”) That said, here are six actors I’ve photographed over the years who couldn’t be more deserving of a big win on Oscar night. From left: Ryan Gosling, Jeff Bridges, Taraji P. Henson, Casey Affleck, Viola Davis and Michael Shannon.