These Stunning Photos Bring Burning Man to Life
(ads were removed)
Elaborate sculptures, beautifully complex, are vividly pictured here in all their glory, curated to catch your gaze. A massive wood effigy called “the Man” is burned at the climax of the event. An enormous crackling bonfire serves as the conclusion to the week-long festivities.
Burning “The Man” is How Burning Man Started
It was a gathering that became an event. A community that started a tradition. In a 2018 WaPo interview, New Yorker Jim Glaser shared his thoughts. He describes it as “kaleidoscopic magic,” saying, “it is just huge! There’s lasers, there’s art cars, there’s flames shooting out of everything. And people do all of this for basically no money.” “It is one of the most barren places in the country, and it blossoms with more creativity, life and love than anything ever in the history of mankind,” Glaser explained.
It attracts the eccentric, the experimental, the curious, the strange. It’s a barter and trade community where nothing is for sale. It’s about giving and receiving and self-reliance. People pilgrimage to Black Rock Desert, a remote area two-and-a-half hours north of Reno, to live free in an open and radically inclusive community for nine blissful days.
A Summer Celebration Becomes a Tradition
In 1986, Larry Harvey, a hippie and sometimes vagabond who lived amongst artists in the Haight-Ashbury district, built an 8-foot human effigy out of lumber scraps on Baker Beach and set it ablaze. A crowd of about 100 people gathered around the ball of flames at the nudist beach next to the Presidio military installation, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. The moment Harvey poured gasoline over “The Man” and struck the match, people came running from every direction. What started as about a dozen of Harvey’s friends and a bonfire, became an instant tradition for celebrating Summer Solstice.
As the yearly gathering of eccentrics caught on, Harvey grew accustomed to fielding inquiries about whether Burners are a cult. He sat down with San Francisco Chronical in 1996 and said, “The Burning Man is Disneyland in reverse . . Woodstock turned inside out. It’s anything you want it to be.” Attendance doubled in the 1990s, growing each year. The week-long event went from hundreds to several thousand attendees. The Burning Man sculpture grew too. In 1987, it was 15 feet tall. And it was 40-feet-tall in 1990, five times higher than the original Man. In 1990 the tradition moved to Black Rock Desert where it attracts tens of thousands of people from all over the world each year.
Moving Burning Man to a More Expansive Location
Leading up to the fifth year of Burning Man, the Golden Gate Police got wise and clamped down. In 1990, they put a damper on the celebration because of wildfire concerns. The gathering was allowed, but not the bonfire. The same year the Bay area authorities informed Harvey the event was banned, Michael Mikel, Kevin Evans, and John Law, friends of Harvey who helped with the construction of the Man, helped move the Man. The entire Burner community was relocated to the desert.
Mickel, Evans, and Law, former hippies involved with the Cacophony Society, had meandered out to the federally owned Black Rock Desert in the past. They knew immediately that the vast flat expanse of dirt would be the perfect place to burn the Man and salvage the tradition. Mickel, a Vietnam veteran from Texas who came to S.F. to free his mind, shared the counterculture Cacophony Society motto. He said the group was organized around a “randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” With that, the beginnings of Burning Man principles took root.
Let There Be Light
With more and more people joining the community each year, the organizers looked for ways to make it as safe as possible for everyone. To brighten things up, Law lit up the Burning Man sculpture with a network of multi-colored neon tubes. Like a beacon of light, it shepherded those who wandered off into the desert, home safe.
Another effort was spearheaded by Mikel. He organized a group called Black Rock Rangers. As its top officer, he gained the nickname “Danger Ranger.” The troops served as a makeshift police department to keep campers at the temporary city safe. Danger Rangers intervened in fights and other conflicts.
It got so popular that in 2000, a whopping 25,000 people made the pilgrimage to the desert community. The number doubled by 2010 with an astounding 50,000 campers. With populations exploding, the gathering took on the feel of a temporary city. Soon enough, it became known as Big Rock City.
The Spirit of Burning Man Melts Down on Billionaire’s Row
The sharing spirit of a trade and barter community comes to a dead-end at the luxury encampment. Many long-time Burners doubt wealthy glampers have much to give back to the community, as their cordoned-off gourmet meals serve only VIP guests. One veteran Burner said, “It strikes me as odd to go to Burning Man for the food.” The 8-year camper who goes by the playa name RCT added, “The wonderful things [here] have absolutely nothing to do with fine dining.”
Some traditional Burning Man camps serve yummy foods and fine wines, but it’s more in line with county fair cuisine. Before he died, Larry Harvey chose not to discriminate against the club of wealthy Burners. He did acknowledge, however, that their isolated and exclusive camps did not respect Burning Man principles.
Ice Cream at the Playa
Yes! It’s true. Ice cream is now served at Burning Man. Ever since 2012, a group of veteran Burners alongside some virgins, have committed to the task of dragging tanks of liquid nitrogen out to the desert as gifts to thousands of Black Rock City citizens.
After a year of research, the ice cream peddlers found a way to get giant cryogenic tanks to the Playa, and more importantly, how to make the frozen treat by hand under the harsh desert sun. Ice cycle Creamery offers unique flavors like Strawberry Margarita sorbet, Black Rock Rum Raisin, and, arguably, the most unique, Burning Breakfast, a mix of bourbon and bacon.
Burning Man Affiliations
Believe it or not, Burning Man has affiliate events offered all around the world. Faraway places like New Zealand, Australia, and China celebrate the burning of the Man with corresponding annual celebrations.
The Guiding Principles at Big Rock City
In order to bring a sense of order to this otherworldly gathering of thousands of people, founding member Lee Harvey developed 10 basic guidelines. Serving as a reminder of the community’s ethos and the spirit of Burning Man, the 10 principles are like a set of values the organizers agreed upon.
The first principle is Radical Inclusion. It means, in short, anyone can be a Burner. The official definition, found on the Burning Man website, is “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”
Acts of giving are central to Burning Man. No cash changes hands with the exception of ice and coffee. Gifting is encouraged instead.
The idea of gifting does not assume or expect an exchange, but oftentimes an exchange is swapped for an act of kindness, a service rendered, or something of value.
In the spirit of gifting, advertising and commercial sponsorships are excluded. The principle of decommodification seeks to protect the Burner culture from commercial exploitation. To the point, do not expect a Starbucks to pop up on the festival perimeter anytime soon.
The community of bartering provides for needs and wants. Sharing is celebrated, and caring is too.
Individuals rely on inner resources under the principle of Radical Self-reliance.
“Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources,” according to the official description. In other words, you’re only as great as your inner spirit, and you’re invited to explore it. Also, Burners are expected to be self-reliant. Bring your own stuff. Make sure you have a shelter and bring in food and other necessities.
The idea of Radical Self-expression centers around the unique gifts of the individual. Gifts of creativity and individualism are celebrated and encouraged. Many create works of art, jewelry or other gifts. Since there is no limit to the type of gift, the principle also hopes that “the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.”
Harking back to the original Burning Man location, the nudist beach at Baker Beach, nudity at the Playa is definitely permitted. While most Burners express their individuality through elaborate costumes, many others feel free to bare all, unencumbered by clothing.
Creative cooperation and collaboration are highly valued at Burning Man. The Communal Effort principle states, “We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.”
Public welfare comes first when organizing events. This principle states that all federal, state and local laws are to be observed. It’s a code meant to keep the community as safe as possible.
Communal events such as live performances are subject to the Civic Responsibility principle. Everyone is expected to be good civic Burner citizens.
Leaving No Trace
The Leaving No Trace principle is all about respecting the environment and cleaning up after the event. Ideally, the dry lake bed should be left in a better state than it was found.
A radical participatory ethic is encouraged, everyone is invited, and everyone is expected to participate. The principle states, “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.”
As one of the organizers’ most important principles, it hopes attendees overcome human barriers of inner and outer reality and, instead, live in “the now.” An immediate experience opens minds to transcend barriers with the human and natural world. It’s about living freely.
It’s about “the experience” and the importance of the experience over any idea. Ideas cannot be a substitute for actual experience. Living as one in nature and among a community of folks who strive for love, acceptance, and immediacy, while forgetting about the outside world, is part of the Burning Man experience.
DiversityWhile every Burning Man principle strives for inclusion, acceptance, and respect for fellow humans, the event itself lacks diversity. The counterculture gathering attracts mostly white folks. In 2014, a survey found 87% of Burners were white.
Matter Out of Place
Matter Out of Place, “moop,” is Burning Man lingo for litter. Volunteers arrive at the event site early to remove any moop. A moop-free desert floor sets the tone for the Leave No Trace principle to be embraced by the incoming flock of Burners. All moop generated during the festivities must be removed from the site. This includes poop. Folks who neglect to use the porta-potties are subject to a $125 fine. Moop and poop are not welcome on the Playa.
There is room for everyone at Burning Man. Even fitness fanatics find a way to maintain their workout schedule. The event offers roller skating, pole dancing, meditation classes, and dance parties. The Burning Man marathon is yet another option.
Does Burning Man Have Showers?
Short answer: Yes. But before you enter the Foam Against the Machine tent, you may want to know that it is far from a private shower. It’s been described as Nazi death camp showers and as a human car wash. People walk into the circus-like big top tent, through the water and foam, and come out clean at the other end.
It’s nonsexual nudity. You have to agree to be naked among many people. And you have to follow the nonsexual guidelines. “Just because someone is naked doesn’t mean you can touch, grab or do anything else,” Foam Against the Machine volunteer Natalie de Leon warned folks. “This is an intimate experience, but it is not a sexual place. If you want that, you can go to other camps.”
Like the Harbin Hot Springs Warm pool and elsewhere near the other pools.
Burning Man Resolves Bitter Facebook Founders’ Rivalry
If you’ve seen The Social Network, you will know about the long-standing rivalry between the Winklevoss brothers and Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz. The Winklevoss brothers sued the company for stealing website elements used on the Facebook platform.
Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss won $65 million after years of legal wrangling. But at the 2013 Burning Man, the boys were finally able to put it behind them. Facebook co-founder Moskovitz said he never met the twins, having only communicated via lawyers. He said, “These guys are among the only people on earth I might describe as real antagonists in my life or even enemies, but on Playa my first instinct was that I quite obviously needed to introduce myself and start with hugs.” By the end of the week, five-time Burner Moskovitz received a friend request from Tyler, followed by a thread “extolling the virtues of the festival.”
Playa names are a fun way for Burners to experiment with identity. Taking on a unique name for the week offers privacy and a way to immerse into the Burning Man culture. A foodie who loves to cook from Alpharetta, GA, says she took on the Playa name Sauté. While Playa names are traditionally given to Burners by the community, others use the temporary appellation to identify personal characteristics and to identify with the Burning Man experience. Very few Burners use their Playa names outside of the desert soiree.
A Ticket to Ride
Every car entering Burning Man must check-in. If you don’t have a ticket, you will not be admitted. This may be the only time the Radical Inclusion principle is violated.
Bikes are Big at Burning Man
Biking into the event is ideal. It gets you around the enormous campus for your stay, and it can become a vehicle of self-expression. Many Burners decorate their bikes with ornate celebrations of individuality. Decorating your bike also makes it easily identifiable among the thousands of bikes at the event. Dust shields and colorful lighting are a couple of popular bike-décor options. At night, lighting is a must. Whether you bike or drive-in, a set of wheels is a Burning Man basic.
A Time to Burn
Artists dedicate themselves to creating elaborate Burning Man sculptures. A single work of art can take a year of extensive planning. At the event’s culmination, the artist watches as flames engulf the labor of love. And it’s not just crafty folks and hobbyists anymore. Burning Man art has come into its own. After just a few decades, Playa art has evolved into the realm of high art. The exhibition, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man premiered at the Smithsonian in 2019.
Kim Cooke, director of art and civic engagement at Burning Man, says, “The Burning Man art ethos is grounded in experimentation and big ideas. The Playa is a place to try things and fail, and there’s no penalty for failure. It’s important to pay attention to the fact that these pieces are made in the community.” Burning Man lore has it that artists whose work is awarded by judges receive a kiss, or possibly a joint for their efforts, and no other prize.
Burning Man Photography
It’s no wonder photographers flock to Burning Man to capture otherworldly visual treats. Amazing sights bring the desert to life. Photographers are welcome, naturally. It’s a gathering based on Radically Inclusive ethics, after all. But photographers do have to follow a few rules.
The rules and etiquette required of photographers start with “Ask First.” Permission must be granted before pictures are taken. Especially in cases of full or partial nudity or any other condition that may invade someone’s privacy. Another etiquette standard is “Don’t Be That Guy;” that guy with a telephoto lens zooming in to take boob shots or that guy who chases down every naked woman like the paparazzi to get a quick snapshot. Photographing illegal conduct is also frowned upon.
Drink Lots of Water
Pack lots of water and stay hydrated. The Nevada desert at the end of August is at its hottest. Weather conditions are unpredictable. Night and day temps may vary wildly.
It will be hot and dry at the Playa, so it is important to drink plenty of water. Flash floods and surprise rainstorms are not uncommon. Be prepared!
Beware of Playa Foot
Burners are susceptible to a condition called Playa foot. Since the dry lake bed of the Playa holds a high-alkaline content, the sand is filled with the ancient residue. Walking with bare feet in sands laden with alkaline causes a reaction like a chemical burn. The reaction can be worsened if you have cracked skin or an open wound. Wear closed-toe shoes!
Black Rock Observatory
A traveling observatory hosted by a collective of science enthusiasts erects a telescope at Burning Man each year. Packed with knowledge, astrologists share the best viewing periods for planets and other astrological phenomena. The gear they haul out there includes an enclosed observatory dome and a handmade 20-inch telescope. Take a look at Jupiter’s rings and galaxies far, far away.
A Spiritual Pilgrimage
Not all Burners trek out to Burning Man for a spiritual experience, but many do. Only 24% of attendees surveyed identified as an atheist. A total of 46% of Burners identified as “spiritual but not religious.” It can only be imagined the spiritual sides of these folks are celebrated amongst the Playa community
Some spiritual journeys include the use of psychedelic drugs, no shocker at Burning Man. But meditation is also popular.
While Burning Man is a drug culture mecca, all kinds of people show up. What most people wouldn’t expect, however, is that Burning Man has attracted a growing sober community in recent years.
Two official camps have been set up for sober Burners. There is one called Anonymous Village and another camp called Run Free. There is a camp for everyone at Burning Man!
Drugs are Illegal at Burning Man
Yes, it comes as a shock, but federal, state and local laws are still in effect at the Black Rock Desert plateau. Enforcement is another story. At a festival that hosts 70,000 souls, only 43 drug arrests went down in the books during the 2018 festival. It may get a little dicey for future Burners if a controversial drug screening program at the entrance arch goes into effect. But as it is, 99% of users are not cited by the ranks of police officers who patrol the perimeter.
A Ballerina to Burn
This enormous ballerina marionette sculpture graced the sands of Burning Man 2017. The ballerina puppet is held aloft, dancing perpetually, and captured eternally in preternatural beauty with this photo. The 30-foot sculpture was created by an artist in Spain and delivered in parts. Its stated artistic goal is to “represent humanity’s beauty through ballet.”
Artwork Set Against a Burning Sky
This fabulous and dynamic dancer sculpture was introduced to the festival by Marco Cochrane. Called “Bliss Dance,” the 40-feet tall, 7,000-pound artwork was featured at Burning Man 2010. The illuminated figure is filled with 1,000 LED lights making the sculpture just as stunning at night. The inferno-like sunset in this image sets the dancer off with ethereal otherworldliness.
Bliss Dance was a favorite of festival judges. The artist was born in Italy and raised in California during the Civil Rights movement. Cochrane’s mission in art is to empower women.