People of Burning Man [NSFW]

Julian Cash's The People of Burning Man is a beautifully produced photo-portrait book shot over many consecutive years at Burning Man, the giant, weird, delightful art and culture festival that takes place every summer in Nevada's Black Rock desert. Cash -- who's quite an accomplished and experimental portraitist -- does a wonderful job of bringing out the decadence and playfulness of Burning Man. There's plenty of the nudity that often comes to mind when people think of Burning Man (this is, after all, the home of the Critical Tits topless bicycle ride), but Cash manages the fantastic trick of allowing his nudes to be sensual and sometimes sexy without ever being pornographic or salacious. These aren't "tasteful" nudes -- but they are exuberant and above all, fun.

People of Burning Man is to be celebrated also for its admirable lack of text. There's very little narration here, because very little is needed. The pictures tell their own stories -- sometimes in a frozen snapshot, and sometimes over time, as we visit with the same Burners over consecutive years (including one woman who appears first in a very pregnant state, and then with a babe at her breast). What little text there is -- a bit of background on the art of shooting portraits in a harsh desert, a little bit of biography supplied by the subjects -- complements the images without upstaging them.

Cash was good enough to supply a gallery of (NSFW, naturally) photos that are included below. There's plenty more -- and lots more material, besides -- at his The People of Burning Man site. The book was independently published with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it's both a beautifully made thing and a thing of beauty.

The People of Burning Man


    1. BULLSHIT!

      Just because someone is making money selling a product doesn’t make it commodification. Please note:

      In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

      1. “Just because someone is making money selling a product doesn’t make it commodification.”

        Isn’t that the very definition of commodification?

        1. Isn’t that the very definition of commodification?

          Not really.  It’s taking something that’s not normally a product and converting it into to one.

          1. ” It’s [commodification] taking something that’s not normally a product and converting it into to one.”

            Yes, that definition does seem to apply here.

          2.  Yet, for something to be a “commodity” there must also be a market demand for it.  If nobody wants that widget I have a hard time calling it a commodity.

      2.  Burners are not a commodity. Now, through the magic of this book, they are.

        There are literally thousands of people who create amazing projects out there, and don’t then try to turn a profit off them. Bizarre, I know.

        1. What makes you think that he’s turning a profit? He could break even or lose money on it. Why is he not just a documentarian who’s trying to cover his costs?

          1.  He’s not making anything. He even did a Kickstarter to just be able to afford to publish it – Which went very well and he put the money into publishing it!

    2. Yay! Commodification!

      I know, I know you probably scream and cry 
      That your little world won’t let you go 
      But who in your measly little world 
      Are you trying to prove that 
      You’re made out of gold and, uh.. can’t be sold

        1. I’ll be sure and contact the random person who put that video up and fix this jarring error for you right after I finish setting up my moon base. ;D

    3. Considering Julian’s personal financial costs—never mind the two-thousand-plus hours of his time—I’m sure he won’t come close to breaking even on his decade-long project, no matter how much he “commodifies” it.
      Were you hoping to get a free copy via a grift economy?

      1.  Not to mention the cost of his equipment!! I’ve been shooting pix of our community for free for 12 years or more, and the cost in cameras, etc has been astronomical!! i would never sell a print (but then again the only reason my pix are valuable historically is cuz i was the only person who *had* a camera and shot everything and everyone, candids, mostly. Now I usually don’t bother cuz everyone has a point-and-shoot and a cellphone.
        But Julian has rented trucks to create his studios in, at his expense, and despite having some serious physical issues, he perseveres in bringing the photos of the people AS THEY SEEM THEMSELVES to life!!

      1. Ic.  I would have just imagined having a festival in the middle of the desert with lots of people wearing little clothes would have called for such precautions.  I know I personally will burn to a crisp in a few hours outside going shirtless.

  1. Anyone know the name of the giggling pink/redhead pulling up the other girls skirt?  Im pretty sure I used to date her a long time ago.

    1.  Kelsey. I think she had some other funky playa nickname, but  it’s escaping me ATM.

       I totally made a fool of myself trying to chat up her friend with the scout uniform–it was bad.

  2. I’m not into BM, but this is very cool. What software can be used to make something like this?

    1. It’s called “Camera” and is available in the App Store. You must provide weirdos yourself though.

      (Joking aside, After Effects, by Adobe would be used to make the video)

    1. Whatever, man.  I’m, like, 1/8th cherokee!

      Or alternately: Huh? I don’t see color…there’s only one race, and that’s the human race.

    2. I suggest you bring some sunglasses.  All those scantily clad white people and sand…the glare will be blinding.

    3.  Given some of the whining about the Hip Hop Family Tree series, it seems like two of the things Boing Boing shouldn’t cover are white people and black people. And of course bananas

  3. I’ve always been skeptical of the Playa: Only in California can you hold an event that demands that you either be a) rich enough to own an RV (with or without another, ‘art’ vehicle), and pay at least a hundred dollars a day on top of your own food, water, and so on, or b) be young, pretty and sexy enough  to look good naked and have some other person provide all this, and still have the balls to call it “a festival of the people”. 

    Yeah, it’s fun and all. But as a poor, obese 53-year old woman in Connecticut I’ll never go.

    1. I’ve always been skeptical of the Playa: Only in California can you…

      I assume you mean northern Nevada?

      Also, while I still haven’t actually attended personally, I have seen enough photos to conclude that the event isn’t exclusively by or for people who “look good naked.”

      1. I have seen enough photos to conclude that the event isn’t exclusively by or for people who “look good naked.”

        What if you consider it from the perspective of a large, predatory carnivore?

      2. That’s awfully pedantic. Burning Man is held in Nevada, but it’s a very California thing. It started on a beach in California, and for the years I was going in the ’90s, was practically San Francisco in the desert.

        1. It’s awfully pedantic to point out that someone made an “only in California…” statement about an event that takes place in another state??

        2. That’s awfully pedantic.

          Pedantic in that whole ‘earth revolves around the sun’ way.

    2. In my half dozen year on the playa, I spent maybe a total of three hours inside an RV.  I did, however,  generally bring my own food and water, as you charge.  Can you clarify the alternative you’re proposing?

    3. I’m also skeptical, partly because many of the videos of it I’ve seen mainly showcase conventionally attractive young women with their tits out wearing fairy wings. Yeah, very “artistic.” This book offers a slightly different perspective at least.   Also,  it may be in Nevada, but I’ll bet the majority of participants are Californians with money to burn.

      1. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that people are more likely to record and share videos of conventionally attractive young women than of other attendees.

        1. Well ironically I first learned about Burning Man from a TV show called Weird TV back in like 97.  Besides the giant burning man himself and some tents the most impressive things featured were a gas powered potato gun and a pulse jet go-kart thing.  The people in general looked artsy and sure there was there occasional girl in bikini (as it was TV), but most of the people were wearing shirts/shorts.  I’m sure the attraction and atmosphere has changed somewhat since then though.

    4. as someone who’s been to (not including this year) 15 burns, i can tell you that every single assumption you’ve made is incorrect:

      1) it’s in northern nevada, not california;
      2) you don’t need to be rich — in fact, i routinely meet people there who only have literally what they are carrying;
      3) you definitely don’t need an RV…. in fact, i sleep in a tent, and prefer the days when there were no RVs;
      4) as far as food and water costs go, it’s nowhere near that expensive. it’s like a regular weekly shopping trip of food, if that, because you tend to eat less in the desert; and
      5) there are PLENTY of people at burning man who are just average folk of all body types and skin colors. just because these few shots don’t show that, doesn’t mean that this is the norm.

      i actually think that if you plan and save for it like any yearly vacation, you could and SHOULD go!

    5. That sucks that you feel left out, especially if you want to go. 

      I can guarantee you that everyone of all shapes and sizes and ages goes to Burning Man, and is made to feel welcome. Trust me, it’s not just the skinny young people that are naked and painted! That’s just the people that exploitative photographers like to put in books and magazines.

      If you want to come to Burning Man, there is a “Low income ticket” program each year. They go quickly (sold out for 2012, unfortunately), but if you email they could tell you how to get one for next year’s Burn. 

      You’re totally right, it’s not a “festival of the people” when it comes to cost, but there are some ways to deal with it if you really want to come. If it’s something you want to do, believe me, you’ll be welcomed when you arrive!

    6. You definitely don’t have to be naked, but what constitutes “looking good naked” is actually a lot more flexible at Burning Man than it is in American culture at large. Most people stay in tents, not RVs. A bunch of my (relatively) broke friends save up their money and went when we were in college. Yeah, tickets are pretty overpriced, but what isn’t? 

    7. Good RVs aren’t cheap, but there are functional RVs that are passable that are.  A $5000 RV could be adequate, even if not actually comfortable.  Acceptable to sleep in, use the bathroom in, and possibly bathe in if such actually happens.

      I’ve been looking into self-contained Class-B (full-sized van chassis) RVs for many years.  I like the Dodges but their towing capacity when fully decked out just isn’t quite high enough for what I need (at least 5000lb, 6000lb would be much better).  I’m not struggling financially, but I’m definitely not rich either.  If I really, really wanted an RV I could probably save up the $10,000 to buy one with some service life left in it over a couple of years if I really felt that was the hobby I wanted to pursue.

  4. The cover looks like it was cobbled together from stock images. I know he took them himself, but there’s something about his use of lighting and perspective that makes these photos destined for a sidebar above “People Aren’t Taking President’s Advice About Mortgage Refinancing!”

    1. I think it’s partially the fact that he removed all of the backgrounds in the sample images, pulling the people out of Burning Man and turning it more into a “look at all of the body paint and boobs” book. 

      1. The studio is a white back drop at the event itself.  There is no “cutting out” people from the desert backdrop.

        As for Seadant, if I have to explain how taking away all but the subject helps you to focus on the individual and nothing else, and how you choose to equate it some stock photography you sawwhich happened to use the same effect,  (lack 0f)  background, and penchant for high angles  – well, then I’m explaining art and technique to you.

        1. Look, I’m sure you can out-fancy me any day of the week, OK? All I’m saying is that this guy’s aesthetic sense is as offensive to me as any ethically neutral thing can be. I am repelled by it.

          1. What a bitchy thing to say! Stop looking and go find something you find esthetically pleasing, altho god knows what that would be? Perhaps some slaves carrying you around in a Sedan Chair? or a LITTER?

          2.  On the other hand, that was a bitchy response to your comment and I just wish people who have problems with someone’s aesthetic realize that at least that person DID something, that they believe in, and expressed it artistically. As opposed to just critiquing other people’s efforts. And the old adage: if you have nothing positive to say, say nothing at all” should be most considered when dealing with art. It;s like saying, “hey, i see you sprayed your guts and heart all over the sidewalk, but i don’t like the pattern.”

  5. The point of Burning Man is to realise that which Hakim Bey calls a “Temporary Autonomous Zone”.

    The point being a zone, where humans can shed convention, for a period of time.

    Critique of the Temporary Autonomous Zone from without is inherently flawed. Critique of the Temporary Autonomous Zone from within has merit.

    Or as the monk said to the other monk – Swim in it, Splutter in it, Soak in it – but don’t talk about it; Words are so much cow dung.

    1.  Perhaps Burning Man was once inspired by the TAZ.  But the contemporary burn is anything but autonomous.

      1. The instant that those who do so band together.

        Every counter-culture is a culture in of itself.  As with the mainstream culture that many counter-cultures form in protest of, counter-cultures end up developing many of the same traits, with leaders, lieutenants of the leaders, followers, and those looked down upon.  It doesn’t even matter that even the leaders in the counter-culture were those looked down upon in the mainstream, they’ll look down upon others in their counter-culture just the same.

        I’ve seen it in the goth scene, at Rocky Horror Picture Show, in the various dance scenes, in various fandom scenes and in greater fandom, in techie/nerd/geek circles, in the BBSer community, in the Usenet community, etc.  Everywhere this has held true.

    2. Critique of the Temporary Autonomous Zone from without is inherently flawed.

      Awesome!  You’ve come up with an assertion that raises whatever it is that you like above criticism.

  6. Pointing out anything about anything is awfully pedantic. If every single page of that book is as crazy as the one he showed us, I’ll get motion sickness by page 3.

  7. UGH……..  my only positive comment is….”watch me, watch me” Halcyon isn’t here. Those that crave being seen based on their love of external self nauseate  me.

    1.  As someone who wishes he looked good enough to crave being seen, I’ll be happy to lend my eyeballs for the indulgence of those who do.

    2.  I think Halcyon is in the very very beginning with a mask on. Also, knowing him personally I must say that you obviously have no clue as to who he is and what he does. Get to know him sometime. Spend some time at First Saturday  helping him supply and feed the homeless, then come back here and tell us how much of a greater person you are than him.  BTW, your comment wasn’t positive at all.

  8. The biggest surprise of my first burn was how few people on the playa actually look like these iconic images.  Full body paint is actually quite impractical in the desert unless you have an RV with a shower, which most don’t.  I brought a body paint kit the first few years, never used it, and now it stays at home.

    1. Not surprising at all when you think about it. Few people go out of their way to photograph regular-looking folks.

    2. Full body paint is actually quite impractical in the desert unless you have an RV with a shower, which most don’t.

      No showers down here. You scrub your ass with sand!

      1.  No sand. The playa is hard caked alkaline silt, like in all those car ads. Depending on the year’s weather, there may also be drifts of incredibly fine dust.

    3.  I very much agree with your first sentence, but not your second. Camp showers (like the Sunshower) will do you fine, though you may still find bits of paint on the less conspicuous creases of your body a few days later.

  9. The article was NSFW… but you didn’t put it behind a cut on the RSS feed so anyone viewing was forced to scroll through the content. :-|

    Publishing content… HOW DOES IT WORK?!?

  10. Play the Donna Summer while watching the People of Burning Man – it makes for a much more interesting video!

  11. I’ve noticed time and again for years that most of the negative comments and assumptions are from people who have never experienced BM, and most of the overwhelmingly positive comments are from people who have been there.  Interesting.

  12. Incidentally, I love how the comment stream here replicates the same challenge to identity and definition that this one annual event in the desert provokes on Playa. 

  13. ITT wealthy white kids get bold about shitting on each other’s efforts and meek about having enjoyed their money.

  14. I’m probably never going to go to BM.  But a lot of my friends (yes, OK, I live in San Francisco) have been several times, and through conversations with them, and through their enthusiasm and enjoyment, and in spite of what BM may have become in recent years, it is possible for someone who’s never been to imagine what it once was.  I supported Julian’s Kickstarter project, for that reason, and anyone who believes that this is some commodification of something or other needs to know that there are many moments when it almost never happened – a bad backup and a failed hard drive almost scuppered it at the last moment, for example.  This is nothing more or less than a labour of love, and should be lauded.

    1. You support people having fun in the way that they choose? That’s crack talk.

  15. I can’t wait for the action figures; a reputable source told me that Stan Lee is in contract negotiation Larry Harvey  as an ‘outside’ consulting to develop a line of flame retardant water soluble shapeable figurines (the development is truly crosscutting, DOW is providing the plastic with the special properties).  Larry has given us so much and I think it is only fair that he makes something from it; BM is a labour of love.  I hope he gets filthy rich from all of his hard work, he deserves it. 

  16. With regard to the scout uniform, that’s the best OA lodge flap ever: Hungteetsepoppi, the smallest lodge in scouting. That design is the classic one that I think is still the best. Interesting note there, the bottom edge shouldn’t be sewn, so the pocket can be buttoned. On the back of the flap there should be a number written in sharpie, each patch is numbered, and you can track down who was the original purchaser of it.

    The sponsoring council of Hungteestsepoppi released a statement a few years back to the effect of “we don’t care about your sexual orientation, no matter what the official policy says,” which is the only reason I maintain any pride in my scout experience, which was in that council.

    It’s an older uniform, given the lack of a world crest, colored background on the rank insignia, and the fire’mn chit patch. It’d be fun to do a 6 degrees thing and look up who originally bought the OA flap, and whose uniform that likely was.

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