The 50mm, My First Love

Canon 50mm f/1.4

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.

Playa Dust

Playa Dust

Playa Dust is a book edited by Samantha Krukowski recently published by Black Dog. It features a collection of great essays along with a wealth of beautiful images, many of them of historical interest, by some wonderful photographers — perhaps especially Stewart Harvey. His stuff is simply amazing. My own work also appears in the book. A fun and illuminating read, especially for those of us still shaking off the playa dust from Burning Man 2014.

Photos from Burning Man 2014

Burning Man 2014 photos by Scott London

2014 marked my eleventh consecutive year at Burning Man. It was as wonderful and enchanting as ever, complete with big art, beautiful people, dear friends, stellar performances, and—of course—wild infernos.

Burning Man 2014 coincided with the publication of our new coffee-table book, Burning Man: Art on Fire, with writer Jennifer Raiser and fellow photographer Sidney Erthal. So in addition to the usual festivities, there were a lot of interviews, signings, and other book-related activities—which seems crazy because the dusty Black Rock Desert is the last place you would want to bring a book!

This year Burning Man started off with an intense thunderstorm, one that actually shut down the event for almost 24 hours. It offered up a perspective of the playa I had never seen before — open desert, stormy skies, and a playground of large-scale art installations completely devoid of people. Thankfully, the weather improved by midweek and was nearly perfect for the remainer of the event.

It turned out to be a great year for photography, if not a great year for me personally (due to an ill-timed kidney stone).

It was my third year covering Burning Man for RollingStone.com. You can view the Rolling Stone set online under the title, “Burning Man 2014’s Trippiest Photos.” I’m not sure how “trippy” they are. (Frankly, I think other photographers do “trippy” better than me.) But I did try to capture some of what the editors describe as “the desert festival’s coolest cars, happiest campers and most mind-blowing art installations.”

I’ve gathered a set of 100 personal favorites from this year’s festivities here on my own site: Burning Man 2014

Recent Publications

With the forthcoming release of my book with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal, Burning Man: Art on Fire — which comes out this week — my photography has been getting a little more attention than usual.

Six of my images were featured in the San Francisco Chronicle this past Sunday as part of a big spread about the book. To my surprise, one of the photos even made the front page.

“A new coffee-table tome, Burning Man: Art on Fire (Race Point Publishing, 208 pages, $35), by San Francisco’s Jennifer Raiser, showcases ingenious, breathtaking and downright wacky installations by amateur and professional artists from around the globe, with color photographs by Sidney Erthal and Scott London and descriptions of the works in the artists’ own words,” writes Carolyne Zinko.

To read the full piece, which includes a nice interview with Jennifer and a dozen photos from the book, go to SFGate.com.

The Telegraph has also published a gallery of photos from the book in their travel section. It showcases images of art cars, 9 in all, under the title “Burning Man’s Mutant Vehicles.”

“Often described as a world within a world, the Burning Man festival is a creative, temporary city with a 70,000-strong population in the middle of the Black Rock Desert,” reads the opening caption. “It is renowned for its art works, which visitors transport from all around the US. Some of these are “mutant vehicles” that people use to traverse the desert landscape. A new photography book celebrates the art works of Burning Man, dedicating a chapter to the craze of these mobile sculptures.”

Check out the full gallery at telegraph.co.uk

With all the trouble going on in the Ukraine at the moment, it’s hard to imagine anybody there reading fashion magazines and dreaming of vacations abroad. But who knows, that could be just the kind of escapism people are looking for. In any case, I was recently asked by the editor of the Ukrainian edition of Marie Claire magazine to share some photos of Burning Man. We got to talking about the event, one talking point led to another, and the story turned into something a little different—part travel piece, part artist profile.

In the piece, I talk about why I love Burning Man, how I happened to start going ten years ago, and how things have changed and evolved over the past decade. Here’s an excerpt:

Burning Man is famous for the Saturday evening ritual in which a giant man made of wood and neon goes up in flames. But there are events going on all week long. Many of them are spontaneous or loosely organized. Others are scheduled and take place every year. One of the most famous is “Critical Tits” in which hundreds or even thousands of women ride around the playa topless. The event is modeled after the Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco, but with a lot more humor and attitude. Unfortunately, I can’t show you images of this, because Burning Man doesn’t allow publication of Critical Tits photos.

As a photographer, I’m also very enamored of the “Black Rock City Fashion Show,” which is a campy and hilarious event that takes place each year. People show off their most amazing outfits and costumes and often perform little routines on stage. The whole thing makes a mockery of a real fashion show, but it also shows off some of the beautiful and amazing attire people create each year specifically for Burning Man.

A question that came up again and again in the conversation was nudity. “Why is it so important for people to get naked there?” Here’s my attempt at a response:

Well, it’s hot in the desert. But that is not the only reason. Some people choose to take off their clothes and go naked because, well, why wear clothes if you don’t have to? There is something wonderful about being free to wear whatever you like—or nothing at all. Since there are no rules, you can do whatever feels most fun and natural.

There is a lot of talk about nudity at Burning Man. But there isn’t really that much of it. Most people keep their clothes on. You do see a fair number of topless women, but not any more than you would on a typical beach in Europe. And the bona fide nudists who go to Burning Man are always a very small minority.

Because it’s August and Burning Man 2014 kicks off in just a few weeks, the media is especially focused on it now. Another magazine highlighting the event is Virgin Australia’s in-flight monthly Voyeur, which devotes six pages of its August issue to Burning Man. The article is written by Sally Dominguez and features 11 of my photos. You can view it online here: Voyeur Magazine

Finally, some of my non-Burning Man photos have also appeared in print in recent weeks. Fast Company magazine published an image I made of R&B icon John Legend. Origin magazine ran one of my portraits of bestselling author Byron Katie. And the Santa Barbara News-Press featured one of my photos of Steve Duneier, better known as the Yarnbomber, in last Sunday’s edition.

It’s a wonderful thing to get your work noticed and into print.

Extraordinary Women

Women and PeaceThe late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”

It was a tough question. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights to which they lead you. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.

To my surprise, all of them were women.

“Why do you think they are all women?” he asked.

I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.

That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.

Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”

“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.

He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure.  “I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”

He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”

I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”

I think most men would benefit from doing the same.

The Guardian’s ‘Pictures of the Week’

Burning Man Art Cars - Photos by Scott London

Some of my photos of art cars made it into The Guardian’s “Pictures of the Week,” including amazing creations by Duane Edward Flatmo, Jon Sarriugarte, Harrod Blank, and others. The images are taken from my forthcoming book with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal, Burning Man: Art On Fire, which will be out in a few weeks.

Check out the full gallery here: Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man

A few of the images also made their way into the print edition (in the Weekend supplement):

Interview in Arts Illustrated

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.

Arts Illustrated Interview with Scott London

Condé Nast Traveler

Some of my pictures from Burning Man appear in the Winter 2014 issue of Condé Nast Traveler Italy. It’s a 14-page spread with images from 2012 and 2013 mostly, including portraits of some of my favorite burners, like Siberfi, Suliman Nawid, Uncle Ira, and Dadara. A couple of photos by the great Tao Ruspoli are also included in the set. Here are the scans:

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traveller_5-6

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