Each year thousands upon thousands of people streaming out of the Nevada desert from the annual gathering called Burning Man. A friend called the annual event, ‘the most significant counter culture gathering of our time.’ This friend is smarter than me in a plethora of ways. I respect his opinion as gold…and yet I still have never personally attended. The organizers state that, “Trying to describe Burning Man to someone who has not experienced Burning Man is like trying to describe a specific color to someone who is blind.” So I am no expert. What I do know is that close to 60,000 people are leaving Black Rock Desert right now and coming back into society all over the world brimming with creativity. That’s cool by me. If, like me, you’ve never been, you probably have a friend that comes back inspired and singing the praises of the experimental community that dances on the playa, drives around in mind-blowing works of art in a surreal Mad Max meets Alice-in-Wonderland landscape. Art for art’s sake at an astounding level.
Photographer Darren Miller has been going to Burning Man for the better part of a decade. He attends each year not just as photographer but also as a professional performance artist. Click through the image tabs above to see some of his joyful work PLUS his shots from last week’s Burning Man. He pays the bills shooting corporate events, commercial jobs and weddings. He often doubles as photographer & entertainment at weddings and events! But it is his personal work, the photography of fellow performance artists, that really lights him up with inspiration. Sometimes quite literally… since he’s been known to fire-dance. I caught up with Darren before he took off for the desert this year to find out about how his community plays into his photography, his influences and why he goes to Burning Man.
CJ: Tell me about Burning Man…
DM: Burning man is one of the largest art festivals in the world that is completely built and created by the sixty thousand participants. In the middle of the isolated and barren Nevada desert
the most colorful creative world comes to life for one week every year. It is radically expressive, and totally unhinged. It is amazing and the scale of the art projects, although worthy of the accolade, could not be held by any of the world’s largest museums. It is an experiment in spontaneous community building that is based on sharing and collaboration. This cauldron of creative expression catalyzes to the core the people who are called to go. When you arrive at the gate you are greeted the words Welcome Home. At that point the mystery of your week there begins to unfold. For me Burning Man is the ultimate coming together of my life as a photographer and performer. There’s a great quote from an essay on the website by Molly Steenson that sums it up: “You’re there to breathe art. Imagine an ice sculpture emitting glacial music — in the desert.”
CJ: Can you describe the intersection of your work as a photographer and a performance artist?
DM: For me photography intersects with performance because the more expressive and entertaining I am, the more relaxed and natural the clients and subjects I am working with become. Photography is a circle between the photographer and the person being photographed. My playfulness and provocative excitement inspire playfulness in others and I find that the more performance-like energy I put into a shoot – the more unique and exciting the results are within my subjects. I push my subjects outside of their comfort zone. People are often surprised, in a good way, by the results. “I wasn’t so sure about that at first,” is not uncommon to hear. But the photos are totally unique and totally full of joy – and it seems to make an impact for people.
CJ: You work with professional performers all the time:fire-breathers, stilt-walkers, dancers, Cirque du Soleil kind of stuff. How do you find these people?
DM:I live in San Francisco which is basically one of the world’s meccas for creative performance and unique expression. It seems like everyone here has some expressive pursuit in their life. What is really wonderful is the collaboration in the performing community. There is a lot of encouragement between individuals and groups to support each other’s creative offerings. In my view the energy of this area is wildly creative, and I feel at home here. Many of my friends and our extended community are world-class performers and so I have a privilege of sharing worlds with them. When we do talk about collaborating on a photo project there is usually a high resonance in our conceptual thinking that inspires a collaboration to happen.
CJ:Given that you are a performance artist – do you try self-portraits?
Self portraits are really interesting to me because I am always evolving my sense of who I am and with that comes new ideas for how I express myself and the performance characters I am developing.
Recently I got a Go Pro camera and I can use it to take pictures of me doing activities a wide range of activities such as surfing, and underwater photography. This year at Burning Man with the giant puppets I have made, I am planning on attaching the Go Pro on the head of the puppet to take pictures from the puppets point of view, with people’s reactions and all.
CJ: Your portfolio has studio work, but it seems there is a strong theme of human creativity juxtaposed with mind-blowing nature. What location do you prefer with your subjects?
DM: In my heart of hearts I am a man of the wilderness and I feel completely at ease in all sorts of environments within the natural world. I grew up on rivers and in the ocean and mountains and on many occasions have solo journeyed into isolated natural areas for days at a time. I never feel more complete in who I am than when I am in the wild. It is this love of the natural world and understanding of the awe and wonder that inspires me to want to photograph people in extreme conditions. What I find in the photograph that we make together is something remarkable. Each person is changed by the environment they are in and the raw natural world setting brings out the epic and heroic and the beautiful nature that is within each of us. Modern society has moved so far from having a daily connection with the natural world, that doing this portrait work in nature serves as a kind of recollection of that connection we have might have lost along the way.
CJ: Who are your influences?
DM: Without seeming like I’m sucking up, and naming names, I am really inspired by the photographers like Chase Jarvis who are sharing their work with everyone openly from concept to creation – in the same way that the artists at Burning Man share their creativity in the interest of inspiring more people. This attitude and culture of sharing is definitely encouraging me to delve deeper into my own personal work and get it out there. The provocative wide open potential for image making gets me really exited. There are so many ideas I would like to make photographs of, and I am looking forward to sharing them and contributing as much as I can to inspire people to embrace their own creative potential.
More info Burning Man here