On the Oscar Trail

It’s not Cannes or Sundance, but over the last three decades the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has established itself as one of America’s leading movie fests. The event typically draws about 70,000 people and features some 200 screenings, along with an impressive line-up of tributes, award shows, and panels with industry insiders.

But the big story each year revolves around the celebrities—the beautiful people who come to town and, for a few days, transform the place into the epicenter of the entertainment world. Given Santa Barbara’s proximity and deep ties to Hollywood, as well as the festival’s serendipitous timing—right in the middle of awards season—it’s no surprise the event has become a crucial stop on the Oscar trail.

The festival announces its line-up of awards and tributes in early January, before the annual Oscar nominations are revealed. The organizers have proven to be surprisingly prescient in recent years, often booking appearances with actors, directors and others in the industry who go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. In 2009, for example, the festival welcomed more than two dozen Oscar nominees.

But the festival’s knack for predicting winners can be attributed in no small part to the Hollywood publicity machine. Today celebrities and industry insiders routinely go on “Oscar tours” to generate buzz for their latest films, often backed by million-dollar advertising budgets. For Academy Award-contenders, an appearance in Santa Barbara can not only generate valuable publicity but improve the odds of a big win at the Oscars.

But it’s movie aficionados who are the big winners at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. For what could be better in the end than eleven full days of screenings, panels with prominent writers, producers, and directors, and tributes to the best and brightest in the business?

It was my fifth year covering the festival. I’ve posted a photoessay here.

Burning Man 2012

The Man Goes Up in Flames at Burning Man 2012

I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man 2012. It was a year of wind and dust and even some rain, which made for some interesting photography but was physically quite challenging. I took almost 3,000 pictures over the course of 8 days.

This year I shot on assignment for Rolling Stone. You can view 25 of my images here: “Burning Man 2012: Magic Mushrooms, Nude Dancers, Wild Infernos and More.” You’ll find two additional sets as well: “More Scenes from Burning Man 2012,” and “Faces of Burning Man 2012.”

I’m now busy putting together my customary set of 100 photos from the event. I hope to have that up very soon. (See below.)

In the meantime, my photography has appeared in a number of recent publications:

  • The October issue of Outside Magazine features a lengthy piece about Burning Man titled, appropriately enough, “Hot Mess.” Written by Brad Wieners, the article includes images from photographers George Post, Steward Harvey, and myself.
  • The current issue of Gateway Magazine, the in-flight magazine of China’s largest airline, includes an 8-page spread featuring my work. A photograph of artist David Boyer’s installation “School of Blue Bottle Noses,” which I took in 2009, appears on the cover. You can view the full issue online here (my photos start on page 218).
  • The Santa Cruz newspaper Good Times ran a terrific cover story by Elizabeth Limbach recently with photos by Kyer Wiltshire and myself. The piece is called “Beyond Black Rock City” and is available here (the online version doesn’t have all of the images from the print edition, I’m sorry to say).
  • The South African magazine One Small Seed has a 7-page spread about Burning Man in its current issue with 10 of my photographs. You can view the story in PDF format here.
  • Popular Mechanics ran a feature back in May called “10 Wild Art Cars from Burning Man” using my images. What’s nice about this piece is that they assigned a writer to it who cobbled together interesting and detailed captions about how each art car was built.
  • I also have a spread in the current issue of Marie Claire Brazil, but I haven’t managed to get copies of it yet and it doesn’t appear to be available online.

UPDATE (September 11, 2012): My 2012 photos are now online — view the set here.

Note To a Young Photographer

I received a note from a young photographer. She said she’s considering returning to school to get a degree in photography. Did I have any advice for her? Here’s my reply:

[…]

I studied photography in college and learned some valuable things. But the best education is the one I gained in the field.

I’ve always had doubts about the value of photography school. My sense is that there are better—and cheaper—ways to learn and develop your craft. And today a photography degree no longer brings any guarantees or opens any special doors.

In fact, I’ve been saddened by the many requests I’ve received from photographers with degrees from expensive trade schools who want to intern with me. The time for an internship, it seems to me, is before you enroll in a degree program, not after.

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that you have to take 10,000 images before you find yourself as a photographer. And Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says the general consensus is it takes 10,000 hours—about 20 hours a week for 10 years—to develop true mastery in a given field.

Both of these observations hold true whether you’re in school earning a credential or out in the field making pictures. So why not skip the degree?

Most of what you can learn in college, you can also learn just as effectively through books, online courses, and weekend workshops. To say nothing of good mentors.

One more thing. Too many people who go to school think that graduating means they are done with their education. The degree gives them the illusion they know everything they need to know. But we can never stop learning, any more than we can reach the limit of our creative capacities. People who are self-taught seem to understand this intuitively.

My best advice to you is:

  1. Volunteer/intern with an established photographer that you like and respect (or simply ask to follow him or her around in the course of a day’s work)
  2. Start a clippings file (or folder on the computer) with work that inspires you and blows your mind and then try to recreate some of those images in your own style
  3. Share your work with other photographers and solicit constructive feedback (and always take “likes” and other forms of positive feedback on social networks like Facebook and Flickr with a grain of salt)
  4. Spend time every day shooting for no other purpose than to have fun and experiment
Salton-Sea-Pier

A Still Afternoon at the Salton Sea

Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair, Albert Camus once said, because it offers us for a moment the glimpse of an eternity we would like to stretch out over the whole of time. I was remembering the quote last week on a visit to the Salton Sea, a place where beauty and despair always seem to go hand-in-hand.

Once a glittering oasis set against the Chocolate Mountains in southeastern California, the sea has become a stagnant and toxic wasteland in recent years. Restoration proposals abound, but lawmakers have mostly turned their backs on the sea. As it continues to dry up at an alarming rate—a result of geography, climate change, tough economic times, and ongoing water conflicts—time seems to be running out.

The four-minute exposure shown here was taken near Red Hill Marina on the south shore. It’s part of a personal project I’ve been working on documenting the effects of environmental devastation and decline. For more of my photos, see The Salton Sea: A Photoessay.

Aerial of Los Angeles

A Clear Day Over Los Angeles

Someone once quipped that there’s nothing like autumn in Los Angeles when throngs of tourists come to watch the smog change colors. If the line is funny it’s because there’s more than a little truth to it. Smog is what I expected to see some weeks ago when I took to the skies with my pilot friend, Sam, for a daytrip to the Palm Desert. But it was one of those rare mornings when the haze seemed to lift for a few fleeting hours. As you can see in this photo, we flew just north of the city above the San Fernando Valley. Looking south we could see across the entire Los Angeles Basin. Palos Verde and even Catalina Island were clearly visible in the distance. Aerial photos of L.A. are hard to come by — you need a clear day and a good vantage point. On this particular morning, I was lucky to have both.

Icon Magazine

Icon Magazine

Eight of my photos from Burning Man appear in this month’s issue of Icon, the British architecture and design magazine, together with a nicely written piece by Charlie Hailey titled “Burn After Building.” Read more about the issue here. Here’s a preview of the spread:

Aerial View of Black Rock City

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

It’s Nice That

Earlier this week I was interviewed by It’s Nice That about my Burning Man photography. It’s Nice That is a beautiful and well-curated art magazine and website based in London. The interview appeared along with about a dozen of my photographs. Since it was edited for length, I’m including the complete exchange below.

Neverwas Haul - A Photo from Burning Man by Scott London

You’ve been documenting Burning Man for the last eight years. Why do you find it so compelling to document?

Burning Man is one of the most interesting events in the world, in my experience, but also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite an art festival, not quite a desert rave, and not quite a social experiment, but something of all three. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s organized around creativity and self-expression. The idea is to fully immerse and express yourself in some creative capacity — through building installations, making art, playing music, dressing up, walking on stilts, spinning fire, or simply being beautiful. It means that it’s an endlessly fascinating place where you never know what to expect and surprise awaits you at every turn.

The scale and the ephemeral nature of the event must be hard to communicate to people who haven’t been there.

Yes, there is no way to convey the sheer immensity of Burning Man to someone who has never been there. There is also something rather dreamlike and enchanting about the way it rises out of the open desert for a few brief days only to vanish again after the event is over. Toward the end of the week, much of the infrastructure — including the 40-foot effigy from which Burning Man takes its name — goes up in flames.

Have you noticed it changing and evolving over the years?

When the event got its start 25 years ago, it was little more than a bonfire on a beach in San Francisco. It moved to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada some years later but was still relatively small and unstructured. For many participants, the appeal of the desert was that there were no rules. If you wanted to shoot guns, play with fire, or blow up cars, there was no one to stop you. But as the event grew, so did the need for order and safety. Today the event attracts over 50,000 people from all over the world. It’s highly organized and tightly run, and perhaps a little less fun. Old-timers complain that the anarchy and lawlessness of the early days has been lost.

Do you recognise people when you go back each year?

Yes, a lot of people return to Burning Man year after year. I’ve developed some quite special and enduring friendships there. It’s also allowed me to explore the anthropology of the event — the way people’s perspectives change over time. This is reflected in some of my photographs of artists and their installations, for example, which show how their creative vision has evolved and transformed.

Would you describe yourself foremost as a photographer or a journalist/writer?

I would say that my journalism takes different forms depending on the nature of the project. I started my career in radio and still think that’s the best medium for conversation and storytelling. Over time I shifted to print and devoted myself more to writing articles and books. Print excels as a medium for presenting facts, analysis, and ideas. In recent years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of photojournalism. Though I learned photography as a kid and studied it in college, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered how powerful it can be.

Burning Man has helped me in that process. When I first attended the event, I was struck by the sheer inadequacy of words. Photography seemed like a more powerful medium for documenting the experience. Photographs convey but don’t interpret. At their best, they are very intimate. They capture the imagination and speak to the heart, but without saying a word.

Steve Jobs Has Died

Steve Jobs in a suit and tie

The news just broke that Steve Jobs has died. It comes as a bit of a shock. I never met him, but like millions of people the world over I was the beneficiary of his brilliant mind and unique vision.

I’ve been using Apple computers for most of my professional life and rarely has a day gone by that I haven’t felt a sense of gratitude for the technologies he brought into being. I’ve produced radio programs, written books, edited films, retouched photos, and created graphic designs on the Mac. And that’s just the beginning. My story is hardly unique. Countless people will tell you the same thing.

Though I never met Jobs, I photographed him some years ago in Oslo. He was there to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Al Gore. My photo made the rounds. Apparently people were shocked to see Jobs in a suit and tie. They imagined that his closets were full of nothing but black turtlenecks and blue jeans, and I had proved them wrong.

People will be discussing his legacy for years to come. But right now, all I can say is that feels like the sudden end of an era.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you’re going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart…. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” — Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.