Contact; Kim Corbin, Publicist
Q and A with Julian Cash
Photographer/Author of The People of Burning Man
Why are you such a die-hard ‘Burner’?
I love going to Burning Man and I love being part of the community, but that’s not why I made this book. People limit themselves too much. They need to see how much is possible. How much they can live and express themselves.
Burning Man is been the perfect place to find people who are willing to be themselves, unabashed. This is rare anywhere else. As we go through life, we censor ourselves. This book was created to encourage people to express themselves and to feel fully free.
How is this different than other books about Burning Man?
All of the photographs are portraits that were taken in the white background studio in the desert. It’s not photos of people walking around in dust. Instead, every photo has perfect natural lighting and was taken in a white room. I often see what would be amazing photos of people, but they’re standing in a circle of lawn chairsand soda cans, beige from the knees down, matching the dusty surface of the desert playa, squinting in the glaring sun, with the rental truck logo behind them. This is less interesting and attractive, to me. I can’t block out that logo, that lawn chair, from my consciousness, even if it’s right behind a 3 headed dragon. I like to see people magnified by an absence of distraction. Using the studio, I was able to make everything technically perfect, visually concentrated, while still capturing the spontaneity and magic that is so prevalent at Burning Man.
What do you think about Burning Man selling out this year?
A big part of the Burning Man ethos has always been, that you sell your ticket for face value. You don’t jack up the price of the event for someone else just because you were first in line. Now that tickets are considered rare and valuable, I’ve heard that scalpers are buying up tickets at face value, then reselling for the highest possible price.
I looked at eBay to see the crazy prices everyone is talking about. Ticket prices typically jumped about a hundred dollars. The really high priced auctions that I’ve found so far seem to be the result of hopeful scalpers and angry shill bidders. Angry Burners are joining eBay just to bid hundreds or even a thousand dollars on a ticket they have no intention of buying. This is to take advantage of an eBay seller’s policy, which says that if your highest bidder defaults, you have to then wait an appropriate time for the next highest bidder to honor their commitment, and go down the list sequentially. If the top 30 bids were fakes, the seller might have to wait 30 days until they got to a real buyer. We don’t have 30 days left! Veteran Burners are trying to prevent the ticket prices from jumping, but it’s hard to keep new people from getting desperate and offering too much money.
A friend of my little brother’s saved up to go for the first time, but waited too long. He said it was a bit harder to take the disappointment because of my making this book, but a bit easier too, because he could get the vibe off the pages. It’s a lovely compliment, but I would rather he had a real option to go there in person. There are a lot of young people who make their decisions on impulse, because they struggle with whether to cut into the important week that college begins. People wont get that chance to make a last-minute decision this year.
Maybe this year’s ticket drama will make it so that next year the event sells out in the first week. Or maybe they will double the number of people allowed in. It’s possible that the event selling out shows that the Burning Man ecosystem is out of whack. Time will tell if this is to the event what global warming is to the earth. But the event has gone through many changes over the years, and I don't think being overly popular is an insurmountable challenge.
Was it easy to find a publisher to print the book?
Yes and no. We got an amazing, big-time agent just because he liked the book. So, a weird thing happened. The big photo-book is shown to publishers by this seasoned agent. The publishers all said “no.” but then, they also asked to keep their copies! The agent told me that never happens. Publishers are inundated with books. They never ask to keep galleys or proofs. Despite their own interest, they indicated that the content was too extreme, and that there would not be enough demand because that everyone knows there is no money in publishing Burning Man things. They obviously liked the book personally! But they were afraid it would not find an audience. We knew it was there, it just wasn’t mainstream. It became clear that we were asking the establishment to publish something that was largely anti-establishment. So we appealed to the community, asking for enough funds to do the printing.
It was an amazingly fast response. In a shot time, several hundred individuals pledged their support, so that within fifteen days we had already received the full amount. When the funding period was completed, the community had contributed well over the amount for which we had asked. This proved that there was a lot of demand and support for the project, and it enabled us to do a larger print run of a book of good length and quality. This print run exists thanks to the support of over 500 fantastically wonderful human beings, whose names are listed in these back pages.
You can see more about the kickstarter campaign, and see the incredible video here: http://kck.st/g9nTI0
What are your favorite photos in the book?
Most often it’s images that are conceptual and a bit political. The connected Palestinian and Israeli breasts. The debt-ridden man with his credit cards embedded in his head. The woman painted as the Egyptian night sky goddess who is holding the earth. The people who posed dressed in formal wear and then posed the same way nude. These are the images that people come back to the most often.
How did you end up taking these conceptual photos?
Many of the photos were just people walking by, but others were “Concept Photos”. I found passionate people at Burning Man, and I asked them two questions. "How do you think the world needs to change? What image might help to bring about that change?" We would then collaborate on an image. Here are some examples of these:
Keith Phillips was serious about not accumulating personal debt, and wanted his photo to reflect his warning. He had recently fallen into the trap and ended up 35k in the hole. He was a harbinger of what was to come. In his photo, the credit cards seem to have been jammed into his skull with great violence. His haunted expression, his situation, his message is prescient of all the troubles the nation got into.
A Palestinian woman came to me at Burning Man. For this collaboration, the vision was of a pair of breasts, straining to pull apart from each other, to define themselves separately, yet unable to break their bonds. Her Palestinian breast was adorned with her embattled nation's flag, and her pierced nipple was then connected to another, decorated with the Israeli flag. Since it was first posted, many Israelis and Palestinians have remarked on the depth and power of the image, for them.
Jimmy, a 14 year old boy, was illegally kicked out of class for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. There is an image of him defiantly holding out a middle finger while holding an American flag that’s engulfed in flame.
Marque Cornblatt is a local artist, who has been going to Burning Man for years to perform at the Temple of The Waterboy. He and I were discussing the way that people get trapped in the cycle of wage slavery, and lose themselves, lose their joy. Marque and I decided to show his Drowning Businessman character, screaming into a cellphone. He's under water. His voice escapes only as an air bubble.
There is one set of photos where it’s people dressed in fully formal wear. Then the same group nude. This is then followed by the same group, in a dynamic pose, covered in mud from the lake bed that the Burning Man event resides on.
Tell us a story behind a photo?
I did a lot of arranging photos shoots before Burning Man and creating the images at the event. This often led to some interesting serendipity and odd chaos. Randal, a campmate, hand painted a globe for the photo. I’d planned to do a shoot with the globe and a woman painted as the night sky. A woman agreed to the shoot ahead of time, and we arranged a time to meet during Burning Man.
At the studio, at the appointed time, the woman came by already painted a lovely blue. We hugged and arranged for the stars to be painted on her, which her friend did with paints we had. This woman coming by at the appointed time, sky blue at that time was a coincidence. After the shoot, it turned out that she wasn’t the woman I’d emailed with at all. The other woman emailed me after the event and apologized for being a no-show. I feel like the image was just destined to appear.
When did you know you could make a book out of your Burning Man photographs?
I didn’t know if it could, but I sensed that the people were remarkable. The first year we brought the studio, we also brought release forms so that we could reprint the photos, maybe in book form. I had no idea if “release forms” were going to fly given the culture at Burning Man. But it was just fine. People wanted a book to get made, and if a book was going to be created, they wanted to be in it.
When did you start doing photography?
I started taking, developing, and printing photos in a dark room at age 12. The photographs that it took back then are the same type of photos I take now. Sensationalistic portraiture. Like the photo I took at 12 years old, during Summer Camp, of my friend Mitch, also 12, pretending to smoke a cigarette. That was a big deal at the time.
When making this book did you have influences? What do you aim for with your photography?
I grew up around several skilled professional portrait photographers. They have always been supportive. I love being able to now send them copies of my book. I started developing and printing film at 12. My Dad and I built me a darkroom in a spare bathroom. My influences are bold, experimental photographers like David LaChapelle and Annie Leibovitz. The designer Tibor Kalman. I like creativity that’s over the top and that pushes boundaries.
I have an emotional connection through photography. It’s never been an isolated froufrou thing for me, I love engaging with people. There are a lot of ways to frame the Burning Man culture, but I only care about photographing people and creatures. That's why this is a book of portraits. Other photographers can do the pretty sky or the big art pieces. I use a wide angle lens so I can be especially close to the subject I’m photographing. This is against the rules of portrait photography, but having a real experience with the subject is key for me. We need to engage. I’m less careful about composition and sculptural lighting. I’m more into a collaboration and an emotion, making sure the photo shoot is fun, exciting, and an experience to remember.
Why did you hire a lawyer?
I wasn't sure about things like the legality of showing money or the American flag being burned. According to my lawyer, this was not a problem. The photograph of the 14-year-old kid burning an American flag because he was illegally kicked out of class, made me question if I would be in danger of flag burning laws. There are also a photos of brand names or logos, such as the labels on the credit cards embedded in a man's head.
Where did you buy the studio you used in the desert?
I didn’t. I cobbled it together. The frame is a standard E-Z up. I sewed reams of canvas straps and white cloth with my trusty Singer and shaping them into a big white room. I sawed myself a big wooden door, covered it with stickers and instructional stuff. The huge wooden door-handle is really a tool for smoothing concrete that I re-purposed. I made some adjustable walls, a floor, used I use lanyards + rebar to keep it properly secured to the ground.
What is Burning Man in your own words? How would you describe it?
Burning man is a fantasy made real. Impossible things happen. It is surreal and beautiful and harsh. The art is incredible. The fire can be magic. But for me, it’s mostly about the people.
What do you enjoy most about it?
Burning man is an entire city of people who are so much more open and alive than you ever see elsewhere. It’s a cultural difference. In Japan, 20 times more people read comic books than in the USA. Their culture has no comic book stigma. Businessmen, working mothers and school girls read their manga on the same train, and it’s not a big deal. At Burning Man, more people truly embrace freedom and creativity. There is no embarrassment stigma. This makes each and every encounter at burning man different than anywhere else.
How many times have you gone to Burning Man? When was your first year?
I first went in 1997. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was blown away. Before we left Burning Man that year, I decided I wanted to set up a portrait studio and body painting garden the year after. We took portraits for close to a decade and my wife and/or I have gone most years since 97.
You often hear people say that Burning Man has become too commercial, used to be cool, etc. – but what does that even mean?
When I first went in 1997, I had heard people say the same thing! People will keep saying this until Burning Man is no more. Saying it is not cool anymore and has gone commercial now, make you sound like you are a cool person who rejects commercialism. Each year nearly 50% of the population are here for the very first time. The culture logically will have variations. But I’ve never felt that the community had lost it’s spark. People with an interest in something like this, they tend to self select in a way that’s ideal. But I also don’t mind people talking about how Burning Man is no longer cool. It’s kind of funny. And I suspect that this rumor helps Burning Man more than it hurts it. If a person decides not to go based on something like “coolness” or vague dismissals, it’s probably not right for them.
What advice would you give to someone who is planning on attending the Burning Man festival for the first time?
There is no such thing as too gaudy, too brightly colored, or too strange. Bring moisturizer, a good flashlight, and if possible, a bike. Drink more water than you think you should. Avoid expectations. Explore. It’s a city where you can afford to be more open than you can in other places. What do you want to express and share?
Is Burning Man scary or pretentious?
The heat and the desert can be dangerous. You need to drink plenty of water to be okay at all, and people can be slow to catch on. The fire can kill you if you don’t respect it, but that’s true any place on earth. But the people are warm and wonderful. Not much scariness or pretentiousness to be found. The especially pretentious folks would not be caught dead at Burning Man. The harsh climate, the arduous trek, and the open people have a way of dissipating that which is fake and superficial.
What have your Burning Man highs and lows been?
My wife has been with me for all of the best highs and the lowest lows. That has made all the difference. Highs: Very often, just profoundly connecting with people during photo shoots at Burning Man have been significant highlights of my life. I’ve made so many good friends. Becoming a published author thanks to the overwhelming will of our community. The adventures with my incredible camp mates. Being able to imagine an idea for a photo, and then actually make something magical come to exist.
Lows: The year that dehydration nearly killed my wife. I did mention that its dangerous to not drink enough? Yeah. My body normally thrives in the heat, but there was one year where I had similar problem. Also, hitting my own knee with a sledge hammer on the first day of Burning Man 2003 sucked! My wife is calm, collected, and frankly amazing in emergency situations like that. With her help, I sailed right through the pain and shot that whole week in a blur of happiness and creativity.
Why is “self-expression” so important to you?
Not allowing somebody to express themselves or to be creative is like not allowing someone to dream. Lack of REM sleep kills humans. It might not be obvious, but being able to truly express ourselves is absolutely critical for a fulfilling life. I’m hoping to encourage others to be more alive, more themselves. This book shows people expressing themselves with notable bravery and excitement. Seeing the people being their true selves makes it easier to follow suit.
Did you begin as a mainstream person and then find this counter-culture?
My parents were both beatniks and then later were hippies. I grew up in a few different places, I spent time in the heart of Greenwich Village, in New York City in the 60’s. My Dad was a minor celebrity artist and had a popular store there. A whole lot of our friends moved out to the country and we spent a few years on a commune. We loved it! After the commune my Mom got a little house of our own in Woodstock, just a hippie family living largely without plumbing and electric. No TV, no lightswitches, so when night fell, we used kerosene lanterns till we went to sleep. My family was of course at the Woodstock concert and I’m in the movie a few times.
I moved in with my Dad as a teenager, and met an awesome teacher ( Mr. Waugh ) who got me into computers. I couldn’t possibly afford a computer so I wrote programs on paper then tested them out at school. I got into Punk in college, loved it, I didn’t feel it was the opposite of Hippie values.
After college I followed the migration of programmers to Silicon Valley in the 90’s, spent a long time in cubicles. Being a programmer was lonely, so I knocked on my neighbor’s door, just to see what would happen, and met my awesome Wife. She’s a firecracker, one day she came back from a pre-Compression party and said “We are going to Burning Man. Lets get packed.” And it was a revelation. Here was what I had been missing, it cracked me open and led me back to who I was. So I’d say Burning Man culture is natural for me, even though on the other hand, I’m also a programmer and project manager who has worked a traditional day job for much of my life.
The People of Burning Man
August 2011 – ISBN: ISBN: 978-0-615-46954-6
Hardcover • 209 pages • $34.99