We last spoke to photographer Scott London after last year’s Burning Man, during which he took some damn fine photographs. Seriously, the man knows that festival in ways other photographers can’t. And we have a festival love that runs deep in our bones, as they are about everything we celebrate: Music, travel, art, independence, originality, performance, and pure joy. If there is a talented photographer who can capture those moments, we will line the fuck up for more and more. We’re hooked — Scott London (@Scott.London), we heart you.
This year, the heat in Black Rock City was brutal, leaving burners hiding during the hottest part of the day and leading a quasi-nocturnal life. But, that didn’t stop famed photographer London from celebrating the spirit of the event and getting some amazing images. He finds moments that surprise and delight. They speak to you. And, where better to find subjects for this kind of human-driven, spontaneous photography than on the baked expanses of the playa?
London was kind enough to give us tons of rad shots and to answers our questions about the reality of working in the heat of the desert, how he changed his initial opinion of Burning Man, and whether a photographer can be fully present in a moment.
How was your experience at this year’s Burning Man?
I had an enchanting week out there. But I say that every year [laughs].
I heard it was very hot this year.
Yes, it was the hottest year ever at Burning Man. We had 100-degree temperatures almost every day. It was tough working in that heat. And people were less active during the day, so there wasn’t quite as much going on as usual.
People don’t talk very often about how challenging it is to be out in the desert for days at a time, do they?
It’s true that the Black Rock Desert is a challenging environment. You can’t take a dip in the lake if it gets hot, like you can at other festivals. Or walk up to a food vendor and buy a smoothie. And there are no showers provided. It’s a tough gig, for both participants and those of us out there working. But that’s also what makes it special. There’s something about the extreme nature of the place that creates a unique kind of togetherness.
Working on top of just attending seems like it would be incredibly exhausting.
Yes, but it gives more than it takes. That’s why I keep going back year after year.
Do you spend the entire event behind the lens, or are there times when you consciously put the camera down?
There are times of day when the light is too harsh for photography. The sun reflects off of the surface of the dry lake bed and it’s extremely bright. You’re basically squinting for much of the day. So you have to put your cameras down.
But I also devote some time each day to doing something other than photography. I have a lot of wonderful friends out there and I like spending time with them. Every morning, for example, I spend an hour or two hanging out at Center Camp Cafe. People know they can always find me there and it’s become a cherished part of the day for me.
I was reading an old interview, and it talked about how initially you resisted going to Burning Man. And now you’re a fixture.
I hope I never become a fixture [laughs]. Initially, I wasn’t interested in going to Burning Man. I went mostly as a favor to my girlfriend because the event meant a great deal to her. But once I got out there, I realized that it was so much more than just a desert rave. It was like a great test tube experiment where new and creative ideas were finding expression. People were thinking about new ways to build community, new ways to foster participation, new ways to make art where you erase the line between artist and spectator. It was an electrifying place, like nothing I’d ever seen before.
When I first went out there, I didn’t go as a photographer. I was a print and radio journalist. But it struck me that Burning Man was such a kaleidoscopic visual experience that the best way to try to convey it was through pictures.
Have you noticed over the time that you’ve been going that considerably more and more people are taking pictures? It seems like everyone needs something to fill up their Instagram and everywhere I go people have cameras or their phone out.
Yes, today everybody has a camera and everyone seems to be competing for the same great photos. What’s more, many people seem obsessed with documenting themselves doing amazing things—presumably to dazzle their followers on Instagram or YouTube. It’s a weird kind of narcissism. I saw a lot of that this year.
If you’re taking pictures, you’re not participating fully in the moment. You can’t be immersed in what’s going on at the same time that you’re standing on the sideline taking pictures. I’m very mindful of this as a photographer. So I see the growing number of cameras at the event as a worrisome trend.
That’s interesting. It’s your job, so it makes sense that there would be times when you disengage so you can take the photos and record what is happening. But it seems so much stranger for someone to voluntarily do that.
Right. There is a subtle distinction between documenting an event and using the camera as a tool for creative expression. When you’re documenting something, you’re standing on the outside looking in. You’re not really a participant, you’re more of a spectator. But if you’re actively trying to give expression to a creative vision or artistic impulse, then the camera becomes an instrument that allows you participate more fully. I don’t always succeed, but that’s what I’m trying to do that when I make images. Some of my best images have come from collaborating with others to try to create some magic together.
I noticed you seem to really love portraits.
There’s nothing more interesting to me than a human face. Faces are dynamic, ever-changing. The best portraits also allow us to connect with what’s alive in another person. They can be very intimate and stir something deep in us.
I’m assuming you’re working with the people that you take them of?
Sometimes I’ll arrange a shoot in advance, but most of my portraits are made on the fly.
What are you looking forward to in the future? Do you have any other photographic plans or projects in the works?
I’m working on a book of portraits, as a matter of fact. I have one Burning Man book out already, Burning Man: Art on Fire, a collaboration with writer Jennifer Raiser and fellow photographer Sidney Erthal. That’s out in a couple of editions. The new and expanded version came out last fall, so it’s still fairly fresh. My next project is devoted to the people of Burning Man. It’s still a few years out, but it’s slowly beginning to take shape.