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  • 08.28.15

A Look Inside The Spectacular Interactive Outdoor Art of Burning Man

Writer/photographer NK Guy chronicles 16 years of Burning Man art in a new Taschen coffee table book The Art of Burning Man

He came for the party, but stuck around for the art.

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For 16 years (1998—2014), London-based Canadian photographer NK Guy made the great pilgrimage west to Burning Man—an end-of-summer experimental community of 70,000 that springs up for a week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. (This year’s festival, themed Carnival of Mirrors, runs August 30—Sept 7.) His goal: chronicling the spectacular interactive outdoor art dotting its vast dusty expanse, known as the playa.

The result of those trips are in the newly published coffee table book, The Art of Burning Man, from art publisher Taschen.

Some of these works are standing structures that people can climb; others are dynamic “mutant vehicles” that jaunt across the desert. Many incorporate stunning feats of engineering, electronics, and pyrotechnics, while still more require human interaction to function. They amaze, educate, or make you think. And at the end, many are burned, some find permanent homes off-playa, while others make return visits.

“Nothing else on the planet approaches the event’s scale, visual ambition, and emphasis on personal discovery and community experience,” says Guy. “It’s become the greatest show of interactive, site-specific, and temporary art on the planet, albeit paradoxically ephemeral. It’s a key aspect of Burning Man, and separates it from your typical summer festival.”

Guy initially snapped photos of the artwork during his first burn, in 1998, to share with friends, but realized the potential for a grander presentation after coming across Wired‘s coffee table book Burning Man the following year.

“I started getting serious about creating a visual record of the work, and for the past 11 years or so I’ve had the sole goal of making a book. Sixteen years and 65,000 photos later, here it is,” he says.

“The book was its own kind of longitudinal survey, but each year it was a treat to see what the artists had come up with,” adds Guy. “The canvas, the vast desert backdrop, is always the same, but every iteration of the event has its own tone or flavor, depending on the art that’s out there.”

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The project involved a unique set of hurdles. Like photographing the city in darkness through the open door of a plane, driving a four-wheel drive up a mountain cliff to spend the night and take photos at dawn, or shooting an exploding Man as fireworks rained down down on his hardhat.

“Desert life is exhausting and harsh on delicate camera equipment. But those challenges have helped me expand my skills as a photographer in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible,” says Guy. “When I first went I took a couple of film cameras, even a few disposables, and snapped photos like a tourist. Nowadays it’s a more elaborate experience–I fill my luggage with camera gear, and buy clothes and supplies once I get to the States. I spend a lot of time composing photos, interacting with the artists, and taking shots from interesting vantages and points of view.”

NK Guy

The book includes tales behind the shots, but one story that didn’t make it in involves a black and white photo at the end, of the Man in 2000. “It was one of those magical moments,” he recalls. “I’d gone out with some friends, and we’d done a little photo shoot in the open desert using infrared film. When we finished we headed back to the city, but a dust storm blew up and we became separated.

“I cycled blindly around for a while to suddenly discover I’d arrived unexpectedly at the Man,” Guy continues. “At that moment, the dust clouds parted. And there was the Man, backlit by the sun, a silhouetted black figure against brilliant scarlet. (I was using a red filter for the IR film) I took one shot, and the camera started rewinding–that was the final picture on the roll! A moment later the clouds closed in and the scene vanished. That moment was decisively gone.

“When the film came back from the lab, it was exactly as I’d imagined it, it was kind of a revelation. It’s still one of my favorite photographs.”

[Photos © NK Guy/TASCHEN GmbH]

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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