Scantily clad passion-fest in a secluded desert? Sign us up. As a matter of fact, we’re so FOMO-filled by Burning Man that for the past couple of years, we’ve reported on it in a variety of ways. Everything at Black Rock City seems, from an armchair festival-goer’s perspective, downright fascinating. Except the bug scourges, that bit sucks.
We’ve written about celeb happenings on The Playa, big changes for the future, and must see photos, but we’ve never actually shared the work of someone who snapped pictures while fully immersed in the whole scene. To remedy that, we sat down with famed Burning Man photographer Scott London (@Scott.London) and picked apart what it’s actually like to photograph the world’s most famous short-term (soon to be long-term) conscious community.
He was nice enough to answer our questions about gear, partying, and how the hell he keeps playa dust out of his equipment.
Can you describe the experience of photographing Burning Man?
One of the things I love about Burning Man is that it’s completely participant-driven. Unlike traditional festivals, where there are DJs lined up, performances scheduled, or activities provided, everybody at Burning Man brings their own entertainment. It could be a massive art installation, a desert ship to ride around on, or a theme camp offering Tantric workshops, monkey chanting, exotic cocktails or any of a dozen other offerings. Or it could be performance art, like fire-dancing, roue cyr, or stilt-walking. Or showing off your skills as a body-painter, tattoo artist, or costume designer. Doesn’t matter. What this creates is an atmosphere of freeform creativity where everybody is a participant rather than a spectator. Everybody at the event contributes something to the overall experience.
The other thing that makes Burning Man unique is that it takes place in a remote and other-worldly setting — a dry lakebed in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful, strange and evocative landscape. The playa is absolutely flat and nearly white, covered as it is in hard packed alkali dust. At Burning Man, it’s like everything is set against a white and pristine natural backdrop. It makes for very unusual and often surreal imagery.
What does Burning Man mean to you?
When Burning Man got its start in San Francisco in the 1980s, it was nothing more than a bonfire on a beach. Now it draws some 70,000 people from all over the world. Many of them come for the same reason that they came in the beginning — to dance, to celebrate, and to burn stuff. But the people who started the event wanted to do more than just throw a great party. At heart, I think, they wanted to create a venue where people could discover, explore, and give expression to their creative instincts, whatever form they happened to take. That spirit is very much alive at Burning Man and it’s one of the reasons I love the event so much. For many participants, breaking out of the confines of old identities and expressing themselves in new and inventive ways is a deeply transformative experience. I think this shows through in some of my photos, especially the portraits.
From a tech standpoint, what are you shooting with? And how do you keep your gear dust-free? I’ve heard horror stories of people ruining their gear on the Playa.
I’m a longtime Canon photographer and shoot with a handful of DSLRs. Every year I bring out four or five of them, each with a dedicated lens. I avoid changing lenses because of the harsh conditions — especially the dust which, as you say, can cause problems when it gets inside the camera.
That said, I think people obsess about equipment too much. My gear is nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. At Burning Man, my choice of gear is a matter of convenience and necessity. It has to be light so I can carry it around on my shoulder all day. It has to be rugged so that it can handle the harsh conditions. And it has to be versatile so it can be used in a variety of settings, some of them quite challenging — like hanging out of an ultralight or suspended above a sea of people in cherry-picker.