If you’re like me, you have many friends who went to Burning Man this year and you can look forward to seeing their photo collections. Maybe you’ve already been exploring the offerings on Flickr or Images.Burningman.com. There are many places to see photos and even video of the theme camps and giant interactive art installations from the playa, as well as candid photos of Burners exploring, celebrating, and reveling.
This book is something far different, and more deliberate than the average vacation photos of a friend’s visit to the weirdest place on earth. Julian Cash’s new book, The People of Burning Man, attempts to document the participants who create Black Rock City through formal portraiture and not random snapshots. From 1998 to 2004, Cash, who is known on the playa as Supersnail, set up a photography studio and took photos of hundreds of Burners.
For the most part, Cash presents each person or group against a simple white background. Although there are a few obvious ‘trick’ photos, all the rest have not been altered beyond normal cleanup. The result is a sometimes unnaturally dust-free look for Black Rock City, but a very clear view of the nature of its citizens in all their freaky, unique, delightfully colorful glory.
There was a long road to creating this book, with every publisher’s representative Supersnail approached turning him down despite wanting to own a copy. Eventually, the book came about as a result of an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign, one of many projects successfully funded by Burner artists and creators in the last year.
The result is worth every penny donated — a gorgeous, full-color hard cover that is wonderfully heavy and solid feeling, providing a tactile satisfaction to go with the visual stimulation. The first few pages literally tell you how much this book wants you to touch it, right after a graphic of an old-fashioned library card encouraging you to loan the book to your friends.
The playful tone continues throughout. Even the few political statements are irreverent ones, like two women’s nipples joined by their piercings, painted with the Palestinian and Israeli flags or a boy gleefully burning the American flag presented next to a newspaper story about him getting in trouble for refusing the Pledge of Allegiance. Most photos stand alone, but some pages show many portraits together, or come with accompanying text. Most depict regular Burners, but groups like the Lamplighters or playa celebrities like Dr. Megavolt and founder Larry Harvey are present as well.
There is lots of nudity in this book, but it would be a mistake to think of it as overtly sexual — the same mistake that clueless newcomers sometimes make. Instead it is just part of the infinite forms of self-expression on display here. Though Burning Man has only grown more diverse since Julian Cash took these pictures, it accurately sets the tone of openness and uninhibited wildness that permeates That Thing in the Desert.
This is a coffee table book and it works like the best big books — it’s enjoyable to read from start to finish, but also great for random browsing. I handed it to a depressed friend last week and it successfully distracted her for a while and even made her smile a bit. Like Burning Man itself, it resists simple spectatorship with wacky activities such as quizzes that challenge readers to match the penis to the person or the Burner to their default world job. There are even a couple of pages of paper dolls with multiple, fabulous outfits to copy and cut out.
If you’ve been to Burning Man events or are just fascinated by Burner culture, you will want to add this book to your library. Printed in a strictly limited run, it is already listed as sold out on Amazon; the only place to get it is directly from the People of Burning Man homepage. If you’re interested, don’t hesitate — order it before the chance blows away like playa dust.
For more of my writing about Burning Man, see A Burner Lexicon. You can also follow me on Twitter.
Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review, but I received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion.
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