“There were no designated areas, no fees. You could just camp anywhere.”
Coming across the first official Burning Man
I had been working in the American West for well over a decade when, on Labor Day weekend in 1987, I stumbled across an artists event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. A group of people in color-coordinated outfits were playing croquet with 6-foot balls, 15-foot wickets, and mallets in the form of pickup trucks with tires mounted on the front. The event was called Croquet X Machina and planned with great attention to detail with one oversight: The organizers hadn’t anticipated the desert’s fierce winds, which turned the game into chaos. Two years later, the artists came back with an event called Ya Gotta Regatta. Everyone brought kinetic sculptures that responded to the wind — oversize chess pieces with sails, suspended balloon works. Of course, there was not a breath of wind the entire weekend. The event was a bust.
When I went out to Black Rock Desert on Labor Day the next year, I didn’t run across anything. But the year after that, 1991, another group of artists showed up with a huge wooden sculpture of a man they planned to set on fire. The original Burning Man had been held at Baker Beach in San Francisco for several years, but this was the first sanctioned event to take place on the desert playa. Maybe 250 people were there. The crowd hoisted the man up by ropes. People made their own modest sculptures. They didn’t bring elaborate installations the way they do now. There were no designated areas, no fees. You could just camp anywhere. I returned the next year to photograph and kept going until 1998. Everything was loose. One time, an airplane flipped upside down trying to land. When Burning Man reached about 15,000 people, I stopped attending. By then, it had turned into an extravaganza. I was much more interested in its modest origins, when it was an unexpected gathering of artists who were creating a community on a vast, empty, vegetation-less expanse.