IDEAS TO BURN

Photo Essay: at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, you can do anything as long as it’s fantastic. Caroline Carter meets Steve Double, a photographer and veteran burner, as he takes his camera for the first time

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

Riding a low-slung beachcruiser across the dazzlingly bright desert, you become part of a tribe voyaging through an unknown world. Two girls pedal past on a tandem, dressed identically in futuristic silver. Someone drives a scorpion across the road in front of you. An oversized VW campervan loaded with people stops to pass the time with a giant Beetle. A sunken ship lies half-buried in the dust. Music blaring from a thousand sound systems promises adventure in every direction.

Navigation is guided by the hour hand of a clock, with the Man at the centre; from the sweeping horseshoe of camps, all roads lead to him, a hundred feet up on his pedestal. Beyond, at 12, is a seemingly endless expanse of flat dusty Playa, stretching towards distant mountains that rise up to the bright blue sky. I circle round him and swing left towards 9.45, where I have arranged to meet the photographer Steve Double (see slideshow) at a tea party next to a 20-foot wooden bell tower.

Tea is apt to be gin, served in a teapot, or Pimms with all the trimmings. A cricket match begins, but, in a rare moment of defeat, has to be abandoned as a dust storm swoops in and the fielders can no longer see the ball. Or the bowler. Masks and scarves are pulled up over mouths and noses to keep out the choking dust; goggles and glasses are donned to keep the super-fine particles out of eyes. Surreal vehicles loom out of the murk: "Neverwas Haul", a three-storey Victorian house on wheels, pulls up and welcomes us aboard.

Wearing a red cowboy shirt and wig, Double is among friends from London, where he lived until he moved to Cairo. He remembers hearing about this event while working for Wired magazine in the mid-1990s, but it took another decade for the "stars to align" and for him to make it out here. "And it was, as they say, like coming home."

This is Burning Man. Every year at the end of August, 50,000 people gather for an arts festival in the Black Rock Desert, a barren lakebed in northern Nevada. Together they build and populate a city, three miles across, that rises out of the dust before disappearing without a trace a week later. With a focus on self-expression in all its forms, Burning Man is one of the most extreme and beautiful festivals in the world.

Those who make it here must practise radical self-reliance by bringing along all the food, water and shelter that they need to survive in the desert. Everything must be shipped in and out along winding two-lane roads across an Indian reservation outside Reno, or into a temporary airport. Thousands of burners go far beyond the basics of survival by bringing art installations, bars, workshops, sound systems or food to feed their neighbours, creating a gift economy where nothing can be bought or sold bar the American staples of ice and coffee.

People go to Burning Man for many different reasons, but one indisputable attraction is its photographic possibilities. Few photographers could resist the chance to capture the fantastical and sensory objects scattered across the Playa, or the artcars that roam the desert hosting parties. (Vehicles are only allowed in the festival proper if they don’t look like vehicles. They can be a giant, fire-spitting, mechanical octopus or a magic carpet or a super yacht, never just a car. If you can imagine it, someone will be driving it.) After the sun sets over the mountains that ring the site, the lights, explosions and fires burning like pyres through the night are irresistibly alluring.

This is Double’s fourth burn and despite a 27-year career as a professional photographer he had never packed a camera until he was commissioned to shoot this photo essay. Feeling that having a lens between himself and the art would make the experience less immediate, he chose to participate in other art projects, such as the building of a giant anti-cathedral  defined only by its columns and arches in 2007, and the introduction of a London Routemaster bus which plied a time-tabled route around the site in 2009.

Bringing his own art to the Playa made Double consider the motives for others to overcome the physical and financial challenges and make their fantasy a reality. Many are not artists in the outside world. The Playa is not a gallery where art is shown and sold; your art is your gift to the community. Some pieces are listed in a guide produced for the event but with more than 300 placed installations, plus hundreds more, both mobile and static, the artists themselves can seem anonymous and secondary to the art. Much of the art, like the Man himself, is burnt before the end of the festival, giving the works a transience that seems odd given the time and effort put into their creation. Every year a new crop of subversive, technologically spectacular and interactive artwork appears, the culmination of months of work.

Thus this was the project that finally brought out Double’s camera: a photo essay made distinct from others by meeting the people who created the work as well as capturing their work in situ. A natural choice for a portrait photographer. "I chose the art that I featured on a purely personal basis," he says. "Either based on the spectacular or the emotional, or something beautiful or surreal in the given environment of the Playa." Early starts to avoid the intense heat of the day were followed by long afternoons tracking down artists to visit and discuss their works.

Constructing (and photographing) art at Burning Man can be hard work. The dust that swirls across the site gets in your eyes, corrodes tools and can jam up a camera. The wind can pick up to 75mph (120kph), flattening camps and installations, reducing visibility to the length of your arm, shrouding the world in white and bringing everything to a standstill. Temperatures regularly exceed 38°C during the day and can drop to freezing at night. This is extreme hedonism. As an experienced burner and festival photographer, Double was relaxed about the challenges that the desert posed. His one concession was to wrap his Canon 40D camera in a trusty zip-lock bag while it wasn’t being used. But he was quite willing to bring it out in a dust storm to get the perfect shot. "I’ve never been that attached to kit. If it dies, it dies. C’est la vie."

Pictured: “Starlight” by Erich Remash from Seattle. Seven plywood stars lit from within and placed in the shape of the constellation of Orion: a piece of the heavens brought to earth

Caroline Carter is editorial production co-ordinator at The Economist and part of an art collective in London