Photographer and filmmaker Max Lowe knows an adventure when he sees one. From snow-capped mountains to majestic canyons to the open sea — if it’s awe-inspiring, Max has probably been there with his camera at the ready, capturing stunning and detailed images. After starting his career at National Geographic in 2012, he’s moved away from a focus on sweeping landscapes in favor of interacting with people and telling slivers of their stories. The goal is to document a piece of the human experience itself, charting its commonalities and differences throughout the world.
Working for National Geographic and shooting documentaries all over the world will take you to a lot of amazing places, but apparently not Burning Man. So when we found out Max had just attended his first Burn, we had to bend his ear about the visit. It’s not every day you get to ask a proper adventurer if Burning Man lives up to the fanatic hype that surrounds it, and given his credentials and experience we’re willing to trust Max’s take.
Max didn’t attend Burning Man on assignment, so while he did bring a camera along, the photos he took are of a more candid nature than the carefully composed photos that populate his various online portfolios. Instead, these pictures illustrate a sort of half-awake dreaminess, aptly reflecting the mystique of the playa. His subjects always cast in dark shadows, a stark change from his usual visual signatures.
The conversation that follows is sure to prove fascinating for anyone intrigued by photography, adventure, and of course Burning Man.
What surprised you the most about Black Rock City?
I think honestly the mentality of giving, whether it’s openness, giving your attention, your time, your resources. That’s the most unique thing about the whole experience, to me — the fact that there’s anything and everything you could probably ever imagine up for grabs to anyone who is there and it’s given freely.
I mean, it’s a spectacle in itself, and that’s pretty amazing. Just the scale of creativity and resources put to work for the simple sake of entertainment and awe is pretty remarkable. But I think the thing that kept coming back to me was the fact that everyone was there doing this — putting in their own time, sweat, and equity — just for the sake of being there and being part of this community.
Whether it’s the food or any one of the experiences that you might have at any of the camps, to all of these art cars and concerts. There is just kind of an infinite number of things that you can take the time and focus to reach into. And it’s all kind of just up for grabs to anyone who’s interested, which is… yeah, it’s pretty unique in our world.
As a first-timer, who has been on the receiving end of hospitality around the world, did you find that there’s a sense of community at Burning Man that you were accepted into?
There are communities that probably have a more open nature, but pretty much everywhere, you have the circle of people who you invest your resources in — both time and energy — in order to strengthen your relationships. You have your immediate family. You have your extended family, your friends and then your community, your tribe, wherever you might live or work or whatever.
And then outside of that, you’re probably going to give substantially less interest and effort into helping out or spending time with or being interested in how people are engaging with you outside of those circles. It’s kind of one of the most remarkable things about Burning Man — you go and for some reason, that layer just feels substantially easier.
Especially as a storyteller delving into the worlds of people who I have met maybe several times or never before. That is part of your job and your job is to go out and tell intimate stories of people far outside of your sphere of comfort and understanding in your own realm, at least in my understanding of what storytelling is. And Burning Man just offers up this opportunity to access that without a camera. You can just sit down and have an intimate conversation with a stranger out in the middle of this wild, crazy experience.
There were people that were our neighbors that I met on the first day and by the second or third day, I was having intimate conversations about things that are some of the most personal things that I am experiencing and I’ve looked into within my own life. That level of intimacy and closeness in a broader sphere is one of the things I think that makes Burning Man so cool and unique.
Does that mean you were met a lot with a temptation to kind of put the camera away and just enjoy the moment?
Yeah, and I did. I mean, I did bring my camera and I shot for a handful of days while I was there. But for me, this was also my first experience going to Burning Man and I wanted to just go experience it. I mean, I would love to go back and shoot with more intent to capture a specific story. Such as looking at this level of intimacy and comfort within social circles that we’re not aligned within the normal world.
But as much as I was loving having my camera there and capturing some of these moments that I was experiencing, a big part of it for me was to just see what exactly that power was that everyone was drawn to. And trying by my own experience and understanding that a little bit more.
Speaking of intent, considering you take photos out in the wild, I would imagine there’s a lot of sitting around waiting for the right lighting, waiting for the right moment. Since you didn’t really have that leisure of time at Burning Man, was everything you shot kind of candid?
Did you try to stage some things? What was the ratio of candid shots to staged for you?
I do these deep dive intimate stories into worlds that are kind of beyond understanding. That’s kind of how I would say I have defined my career as a storyteller. And yeah, it does take a lot more time and thought and composition. It’s kind of like you said — Burning Man, there’s just so much happening that you could get lost in any tiny little corner of the city and what’s happening in those corners and tell a unique story. You know you can follow one individual through their experience. You could document one art car and the impact that it has on all the people who interact with it.
There’s like an infinite number of interesting stories I think to be captured and I just let the camera be a part of me and my experience. And by it just capture a little bit of what I was seeing and feeling throughout my experience. I think there are many different ways that you can interact with the world through the lens.
I’ve always been more of a fan of being engaged personally with your subject and trying to create intimacy by providing it yourself first. And I think that in whatever regard I manage to shoot Burning Man is how I tried to approach my experience and how I shot it.
What really captured your eye at Burning Man?
I mean, the people that I was experiencing it with, obviously. And then also just like the wild landscapes and visual experiences that are so unique to the playa. These huge wide-open expanses in the middle of nowhere. This city, you’re literally in the middle of it what is otherwise an empty desert with these immense pieces of art out in the middle of nowhere that are just meant to make you think and go deeper within yourself.
It’s a visually overwhelming experience biking around on the playa at night, art cars cruising around and an immense amount of sound pollution from all this crazy art, like being at sound camp just playing the loudest music you’ve ever heard in your life.
So it was kind of like a balance of those two things that drew me in. Those intimate moments with people and then also these just immense overwhelming things that just made me feel so small.
Let’s talk a little bit about that desert setting. In terms of photography, did you have to do any kind of preparations beforehand or take into account certain types of lenses or filters to deal with that kind of desert light and all those browns and earth tones that Burning Man is full of?
Not really. I mean… I’m not super techie as far as my approach to photography. I like to have nice equipment, but I’m not one to plan out what filters and stuff I’m using because of the landscape that I’m going to. Unless it’s going to be super bright, which it is during the day at Burning Man. You definitely want to have a variable ND (Neutral-Density) filter, but honestly, I took a camera and a lens set that I was less worried about getting damaged.
Because you’re cruising around and all of a sudden you’ll be in the middle of a giant dust storm and it’s just this super fine dust in the air that will get inside of electronics. And yeah, I would say to just not be too attached to the equipment you’re using unless you have it properly protected. I was keeping my camera equipment in a waterproof bag when I wasn’t shooting with it. And everything just kind of goes dust to dust out on the playa. So you just have to be prepared to lose stuff along the way.
Did you have any assumptions about Burning Man before you went? For example, it’s kind of easy from an outsider’s perspective to make fun of the Burning Man fanaticism. The burners, if you will, the way they see themselves as spiritual explorers. That seems easy to laugh at, but now that you’ve experienced it, do you think you kind of understand that on a different level?
Yeah, yeah, totally. And I’m always one to kind of be skeptical of stuff like that. I think that there are definitely people who probably over-exaggerate and there’s a reason the stereotypes exist. But I think that there is validity to it, totally. I mean, because it is truly unique in the way that it allows people to be vulnerable and feel a part of something larger than themselves.
A lot of people take the initiative to break personal boundaries for themselves that they would have otherwise probably never taken normal day to day life. Just because there is this openness and acceptance for whatever you want to do as long as it’s not harming someone else.
You’re very much an adventurer. I think your photography proves that. I was looking at your adventure portfolio on your website earlier. I think we both agree that not every American festival is an adventure. Is Burning Man an adventure? Would you describe it on the same type of level as other adventures you’ve experienced?
Yeah. Kind of, depending on how you do it. I didn’t get my ticket until a month prior and didn’t have too much time to plan and so I kind of just embraced it, after trying to find an RV realizing that it would have been grossly expensive, I just kind of embraced camping, living it out outside, which is definitely more of an adventure. You’re in the elements and even though it is a city and you have the support that the city gives you, both the social infrastructure that Burning Man itself provides and outhouses and insecurity, and people to help you out if you’re having a hard time as well as the community itself that you can choose to embrace at any level.
It is a survival situation and if you’re not prepared it can be tough. You want to make sure you have water at all times and you’re prepared for hot and cold. You’ve got to be prepared for getting dusty and dirty down in the desert. Yeah, I mean depending on how much money you have available and how many resources you can muster, it can be at a bigger, smaller adventure I think.
I think there’s more than one way to describe adventure. And I think for me, more of the adventure that I experienced there was just doing things that I am usually uncomfortable with in day to day life. Whether that’s like getting naked with people you just met or just embracing, meeting some stranger, and spending hours with them, just cruising around and talking or looking at stuff and exploring the city. I think adventure at its root is just breaking the boundaries of comfort or going to somewhere you’ve never been before. Experiencing something that scares you or pushes you to your edge of the understanding of the world. And I think Burning Man offers up elements of all those different things.
Awesome. So like the Burner’s say, it was more of a “spiritual experience?”
[Laughs] I’m sure that there are people who have climbed Everest and ridden big waves on the ocean that would probably have a hard time going to Burning Man in different regards. That’s just a different type of adventure. And there are physical aspects for sure, but I would say it’s more of a mental experience.
Take a look at some of Max’s adventure photography below and head over to his website for a more in-depth look.