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.
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.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
On my bike at Burning Man 2016. (Photo by Duncan Rawlinson)
Thanks to Rolling Stone for including one of my photos from Burning Man in their selection of best images from 2015. The photo was originally part of a series of 21 images of mine that ran back in September (“See Trippy, Surreal Photos From Burning Man 2015“). What’s really trippy and surreal is seeing my work alongside that of legendary photographers like Albert Watson, David LaChapelle and Mark Seliger. But what a special honor.
Check out the complete gallery here: Rolling Stone’s Best Photos of 2015
Each year at the end of June, Santa Barbara, California, officially kicks off summer with a three-day solstice party. The highlight of the weekend is a parade famous for its whimsical floats, colorful stiltwalkers, goofy performance artists, Brazilian drummers, and giggling kids donning masks, costumes, and painted faces, and of course the amazing samba dancers wearing feathers and sequins (and not much else). The annual event got its start in 1974 and now attracts upward of 100,000 visitors and more than 1,000 participants from near and far.
The 2016 theme, “Legends,” evoked lots of characters from American folklore and Greek Mythology, from Paul Bunyan and Tarzan to Medusa and Aphrodite. There were a couple of floats commemorating the late artist Prince—a legend of a different sort. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, donning an inspired airplane costume, came as Amelia Earhart. Inevitably, a pair of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump impersonators made an appearance. And because the Solstice festivities coincided with Pride weekend in cities like San Francisco and New York this year, there were more than a few same-sex couples waving bright rainbow flags.
Below are a few of my photos. You can check out the complete set here.
For the complete set, go to: Santa Barbara Solstice 2016
The Painted Desert series grew out of a collaboration with the performance troupe Vessel. Part photography, part costume design, and part interactive performance, the project was commissioned by the Mesa Arts Center last year.
A lot of planning and hard work went into the photoshoot in the Painted Desert and it was immensely fun. But the real highlight of the project was presenting the work at the Spark! Festival in Mesa, Arizona.
As a photographer, I’ve presented my images in a variety of formats and venues over the years—magazines, gallery shows, books, film, etc. But the Spark! performance was something altogether new for me. We projected the photographs on people and objects as part of the performance piece. The entire arts complex became a moving art gallery of sorts, with images flowing across walls, ceilings, floors, and even people in the audience.
As you can see in the photos below, the Vessel performers became living screens for the projected images.
Vessel is the brainchild of Rachel Bowditch, a respected performance artist recently named one of today’s 100 top creatives by Origin Magazine. It was a joy and an honor to work with her. For more about Rachel’s work, check out her website Vessel Project.
Here are a few more photos from the series. For more images, check out the slideshow here.
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
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.
Canon 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.
Canon 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.
Canon 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.
There is a wonderful line in A Thousand Names for Joy where Byron Katie asks: Who would you be without your story? “There is no story that is you or leads to you,” she says. “Every story leads away from you. You are what exists before all stories. You are what remains when the story is understood.”
Katie’s books and public workshops have helped tens of thousands of people understand how their their attachment to stories stand in the way of their own joy and freedom. I discovered her work about ten years ago and it’s safe to say I had my mind blown.
Given the influence Katie has had on me, I was thrilled to be invited to photograph her at her ranch in Ojai, California. We spent an afternoon taking pictures, having tea, talking about our favorite books and teachers. It was one of the easiest photoshoots I can remember. The afternoon flew by in an instant.
Katie herself seemed completely present, open to ideas, even playful in front of the camera. Many people are uncomfortable in front of big lenses and studio strobes. Not Katie. I was reminded of another line from her book:
“A mature mind can entertain any idea,” she writes. “It is never threatened by opposition or conflict, because it knows that it can’t be hindered. When it has no position to defend or identity to protect, it can go anywhere. There’s never anything to lose… Laughter pours out of it.”
Beautiful words, ones which Katie herself teaches by example.
My portrait of Katie appears on the Spanish edition of A Thousand Names for Joy
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.