When I mention Burning Man, the first thing I hear is “What’s Burning Man?” That’s a surprisingly tough question to answer even though it’s something that I’ve thought about a fair amount.
I guess it’s easiest to first talk about what it’s not. It’s not a spiritual hippie gathering - although there are hippies who gather there. It’s not a music festival - though there are bands that perform (none big headliners). It’s not a rave - even though there’s plenty of techno music and even raves where you can dance all night. It’s not an art festival - despite the many art installations that abound in the camps and out in the desert. It’s not even about burning some man - even though a 40 foot high neon effigy of a man gets toasted in a crowd pleasing display of exploding gasoline and fireworks.
The best I can come up with is that it’s a Disneyland for consenting adults with lots of self expression thrown in for good measure. And dust. And booze. And boobs. If you’re an aficionado of boobs swinging in the wind while their owner bounces their bicycle over a bumpy road, Burning Man is for you.
Burning Man is really a fantastic opportunity to cut loose in the desert with 50,000 other like-minded souls. You can party, dance, walk naked, create art, cross-dress, perform, fetishize, or just act crazy so long as you’re not hurting anyone else - without their permission that is. Anything goes with permission. For example, a drink at one bar was five well-placed spankings on my tender butt. I don’t mean to whine, but the pain was more that I would have endured had I known the payoff was cheap vodka usually reserved for old drunks on a government pension.
The event is held two hours north of Reno in the Nevada desert which is officially about an hour north of the middle of nowhere. There is no corporate sponsorship. In fact, nothing is for sale except for bags of ice and double cappuccino lattes. Perhaps it’s because the founder of the event is from San Francisco that foofie coffee drinks are considered more essential than food and water. Frankly, if it was up to me, beer and vodka would be on the menu, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m from San Diego.
One thing that there’s no getting around is the dust. It’s the great equalizer. At the end of the day, everyone and everything is covered with dust. Unless of course you’re one of the bourgeoisie with your generator and air conditioner equipped 40 foot luxury land yacht sporting. But encapsulating oneself away from the sometimes annoying elements also takes you away from the fun and the people. And Burning Man is really about the people.
To the extent that there are rules, and many Burning Man types will try to tell you that there are no rules - try telling that to the inspector at the gate who searches your car for would-be free riders with more zeal than a rookie Tijuana border inspector looking for illegal immigrants - the real rule is to open yourself to others and be open to others. In other words, be prepared to meet a lot of weird people. Just try not to stare at their tits please.
Back to the dust though. As the lakebed where the event is held gets softened by the passing of cars, bikes and pedestrians, a fine cement like dust is kicked into the air. It hangs over the makeshift city like a foggy cloud and works its way into your food, your hair and living spaces. It’s bearable for a couple of days, but when the wind starts blowing on day four and creates a whiteout fit for Lawrence of Arabia, the only answer is sleep or heavy drinking. Fortunately, the latter often leads to the former.
If somehow this recounting inspires you to photograph Burning Man on some future visit, be sure to bring lots of saran wrap, plastic wrapping or even an underwater housing to protect your gear. If you don’t, expect to pay for an expensive cleaning. Here’s what my camera looked like after a couple of days of shooting.
And my van in the middle of a big duststorm:
I spent my first day shooting portraits on the Esplanade - the main walkway around which all the camps are centered. I set up a high-powered flash, encased in plastic, and shot with a large camera, also wrapped tightly in plastic. After two or three hours of photographing people in the 95 degree weather, my head hurt and I could hardly move. I was a step or two from heat exhaustion.
Which is a real threat on the Playa as the dry lakebed is called. I saw one lady sprawled out in the middle of a street and another bleary eyed in the center tent, both being attended to by paramedics. There’s no escape from the heat so constantly drinking water is a must. I probably would have collapsed but for the help of some strangers who carried my gear while I slowly pedaled back to camp and my one last, cold bottle of carrot juice.
As much as anything, I was constantly impressed by people’s creativity and commitment to expression. From fantastic art to odd theme camps, there was something new and surprising at every corner.
One night, my first one sober after a couple days of binge drinking, we stood in the darkness far away from the hubbub of camp. Like something out a psylocibin induced hallucination, a three-story high green rubber ducky emerged from the darkness. its head consisted of gold mirrors fashioned together like a massive disco ball and its Trojan helmet style crest shot fire high into the air.
Techno music didn’t so much blast from it as it enveloped us and everything else around it. Most “art cars” as they’re called, have music, but this had a sound system that could fill a baseball stadium. As it turned, the 100 or so ravers dancing in the back came into view. I’ve described the fantastic apparition to at least a couple of folks who responded by asking about my psychedelic drug selection at the time. But I have the video to prove it.
Another morning, as I attempted to awaken myself from a hangover stupor, my friend Joe Photo cheerily stuck his head in the van. Anyone who knows Joe knows his boundless energy that borders on hyperactivity. Like a proud matchmaker, he introduced me to Lisa, a model from New York City, who wanted me to photograph her nude. Even in my post-drunken haze, I couldn’t help but notice her large and very exposed breasts as I tried to carry on some sort of intelligent conversation. Fortunately, I went for her hand instead of her boob as I introduced myself.
Later, Lisa returned with a friend and we biked off to a less trodden section of the playa where we snapped our nude images. Afterwards, as she got dressed for a party, she wondered aloud whether she should go topless or wear a top that she’d brought. I suggested the top. I suppose there’s something more alluring about showing off just a little without taking it all off. So there you have it girls, another important life lesson learned from Burning Man: Don’t go topless when you go out at night.
Back when I was five years old, the summer of love was barely over and being hippie was cool. As a pretty-smart-for-his-age five year old, I wanted to be a hippie. Alas, I went to Catholic school so long hair or anything counter-cultural was out. Still, all these many years later, I’ve allowed my hair to grow long to fulfill my unfulfilled preschool desires. Other than that, I think hippies suck. I once gave a ride to a couple of them and the leftover moldy patchouli smell nearly forced me to sell the car.
So when friends dismiss Burning Man as some hippie lovefest, I take umbrage. Like I said earlier, there are hippies and there’s a drum circle around somewhere if you want one. However, on your way to finding it, you’re likely to find the Thunderdome. Post-apocalyptic violence is the best way to describe it. When the sign in front says “Zero Hours Since Last Injury,” that’s not just a statement, it’s a boast.
Basically, two combatants are strapped into bungie cords and then smacked together like click clacks after which they pummel each other with foam covered bats. There’s no hand, head, groin or other protection. It’s also not safe. I saw one bloodied loser get carried out on a stretcher, another get tested for a concussion, another tested for a broken arm. And then I figured that was enough mayhem for 20 minutes.
That’s part of the beauty of Burning Man. If you’re stupid enough to sign up for the Thunderdome, you can get seriously hurt. There’s no one there to stop you. One rave we went to had a U shaped dance floor about 15 feet off the ground. It was maybe ten feet wide and had no railing. If you forgot where you were and danced off the edge, there was nothing to stop your fall.
Where I live, there’s a street festival around the corner. If you want to drink beer, you have to go to a “beer garden” cordoned off by a tarp covered fence. It’s like you’re going to infect the population by your dangerous activity. You can’t ride your bike since that could hurt someone. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s all so managed and controlled.
What I loved about Burning Man is that the idea that you have to be protected from your own stupidity and the idea that you can’t be responsible for yourself doesn’t exist. You have to responsible to the community at large - no littering, fighting or, god forbid, casting bad vibes - but the rest of it is up to you.
Like I said, I’m no hippie and I’d like to think that there’s no chance I’ll be drinking the Kool Aid of a true believer - those are the ones who’ll wish you “have a good burn” instead of “see you later.” But I’m already planning for next year. We’re thinking of a themed camp for photographers where you can blow off your camera with compressed air. When Lady MacBeth agonized, “What, will these hands never be clean?” I think she was really talking about Burning Man dust.
On my final evening on the playa, I watched the Man burn. It was quite a hoopla. The pyrotechnic fountains that continuously shot into the air were occasionally punctuated by gasoline explosions and exploding rockets. The crowd roared as the neon giant caught fire and then roared again as it crashed to the ground in an orgy of sparks and flames.
Afterwards, . The well-produced performance felt just a little too slick even, gasp, commercial. In a way, I’d rather have seen someone stick a match to it and watch it slowly burn. Just like Burning Man doesn’t need corporate sponsorships or media attention, it doesn’t need a made-for-television extravaganza for it’s signature moment. Bob Costas and the NBC Olympic opening ceremonies film crew weren’t around for the play-by-play coverage so why pretend they were?
The next morning, tired and hungover from cheap tequila, I slumped in the passenger seat as our van slowly inched its way back to the asphalt of the highway. There was only supposed to be one line of cars heading out, but folks inconsiderately began cutting around and passing the slow moving line. Ultimately, they created another traffic jam as they rejoined the single lane that exited to the road. It was an all-too-quick reminder that, as with other things Nevada, the community minded spirit created by Burning Man stays at Burning Man.
No matter, I’ll be back next year.