It’s an incredible site – a vast and utterly barren plain, a dry lake bed in northern Nevada. It frees the artists who come to the event to truly dream big, and challenges them to take full advantage of the surroundings.
My first trip to Burning Man, back in 1998 was really just curiosity, to be frank. It seemed like such a fascinatingly wild and crazy event, and a great stop on a summer road trip. I’d heard of Burning Man back in 1991, from photos published in the Whole Earth Review magazine, but it wasn’t until 1998 that I was able to make the voyage myself. And in many ways I was totally unprepared for what I’d encounter. It was like visiting a foreign country that you’d seen on a postcard— both familiar yet completely surreal. I felt I’d been transported to an alien planet, or to a movie set where the cameras aren’t turning.
And of course, I had no idea that I’d be back a further 15 times, or that I’d spend 11 years focused on creating a book about it – Art of Burning Man.
As a photographer, the flat expanse of clay and the distant mountains become an endless backdrop for the art that’s the key focal point of the event. It provides an intensely surreal setting for recording the work.
Then there are the ever-changing weather conditions of the open desert. You can go from a brilliant golden sunrise to scorching intense heat at lunchtime to a choking dust storm in the afternoon to a pink desert twilight to intensely dark night – all within the space of a day.
Finally there’s the social and political context of the event. Burning Man is one of the few places on Earth other than private homes and some religious institutions where nothing, including the art, can be bought or sold. The fact that the art isn’t driven by commercial imperatives frees artists to take their work in very interesting directions.
If the dust weren’t bad enough, I’ve had years where a third of my shots were blank frames because the heat had melted the foam bumpers in my camera’s shutter
From a technical standpoint the conditions are really tough if you’re carrying a camera. Dust storms are horrific to breathe in, and not great for fragile camera gear. It can be roasting during the day, and freezing at night. You can’t drive in your car, so I had to carry around my equipment, including heavy tripods, by bike and foot.
If the dust weren’t bad enough, I’ve had years where a third of my shots were blank frames because the heat had melted the foam bumpers in my camera’s shutter.
From an aesthetic standpoint the ever-changing light and weather conditions present constant challenges, as do the constantly changing surroundings of the event itself. People and their bikes come and go, as do art cars and service vehicles. Maybe there’s that perfect shot in front of you that’s marred by the sight of a bank of chemical toilets. At the end of the day, it’s fast-moving photojournalism rather than slow and deliberate studio photography.
It’s grown enormously since my first year. This year’s event has a population about five times that of 1998’s. That brings with it art on a much bigger and grander scale, in keeping with growing budgets and ambitions. It’s also become increasingly international.
It’s not just money, though. The past decade and a half has also seen the growth of whole artistic communities and shared infrastructure to make the incredible art happen. In the early days, an art piece might be made by an artist or two and a few friends. Today, massive teams work together in enormous warehouses to build the startling art you see out there.
The development of low-power lighting – particularly electroluminescent wire for wearables and LEDs for everything – has also been transformative. The darkness of night has long been banished at Burning Man, and it’s hard to see the stars from the center of the city. Like anything this has its pros and cons. It’s great to be in the middle of a glowing carnival, but I have to admit I do miss the ease with which you could find solitude in the past
Some things don’t change. The dust, the vast scale of the desert against which we’re all incomprehensibly small creatures, the gatherings of friends, the incredible art, the sense of open invitation to be who you want to be – that’s always part of Burning Man. C
Art of Burning Man, by NK Guy, is published by Taschen
TOP: Lost Suitcase 2013 Performer: Pi Feathersword A piece of lonely lost luggage – performer Pi Feathersword – wanders disconsolately across the vast plain of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert during Burning Man art festival, 2013. In the distance stands the Burning Man figure. © NK Guy/TASCHEN GmbH
HOMEPAGE: CS (Clock Ship) Tere, 2013 Artist: Andy Tibbetts A handcrafted pirate ship vehicle, driven by an ingenious front wheel with no axle, at the Burning Man art festival, 2013. One of many art cars which roam the event. © NK Guy/TASCHEN GmbH