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Gabe Kirchheimer

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com

Gabe Kirchheimer/gabekphoto.com
These Burning Man photos were taken with Canon EOS cameras.

What Is Burning Man?

Is it a mirage? No, it's the Burning Man art event in Nevada's Black Rock Desert—perhaps the world's most surrealistic outdoor happening, where hundreds of large artworks and 50,000+ participants annually populate the tabula rasa of this featureless, dusty expanse. Here, where the motto is "no spectators," art is transformed from an elite, commodified realm and integrated into daily life, and everyone is an artist

Each year at the end of August, caravans of "Burners" from near and far converge to create the massive temporary encampment known as Black Rock City, a precise geometric formation that from the air resembles a futuristic civilization on another planet. Lasting only one week, the event's primary directive, "Leave No Trace," remarkably ensures that the vast, featureless dry lakebed of ancient Lake Lahontan is quickly returned to its pristine state. Beyond the event itself, Burning Man comprises a significant art movement and an expanding cultural phenomenon, incorporating interactive and collaborative art, "radical self-expression," community, and environmental responsibility.

Begun in 1986 as a gathering of 20 people on a San Francisco beach, Burning Man sold out in 2012 ("Fertility 2.0") for the second consecutive year, with 52,385 (plus 1,500 staff) actual participants out of a limit of 60,900 imposed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the site. Near the tiny town of Gerlach, Nevada (population 546), hundreds of colorful art installations and structures of every description magically sprout from the perfectly flat alkaline space known as the "playa." The main attractions seen and visited by thousands daily are loosely focused on the annual art theme: "Rites of Passage" for 2011; "Metropolis" for 2010; "Evolution" for 2009; for 2008, "American Dream"; for 2007, the ecologically oriented "The Green Man"; for 2006, the ominous "Hope and Fear: The Future"; for 2005, "Psyche"; for 2004, the celestial "Vault of Heaven"; for 2003, the metaphysical "Beyond Belief"; for 2002, the aqueous "Floating World."

The relentless desert sun often gives way to severe dust storms that envelop everything in an impenetrable cloud of fine powder, requiring Burners to be fully prepared at all times with dust masks, goggles, and copious amounts of water. Burning Man tickets clearly specify that participants "voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death," and scores are typically treated each day for dehydration, heatstroke, or "playa foot."

At the center of Black Rock City is the Man, a 100-foot-high wood and neon figure mounted on a large platform (unique to the annual theme) that is burned with great ceremony and fireworks on the final Saturday night, as tens of thousands of excited onlookers surround the raging inferno, known as the Burn. Many other large and small artworks are incinerated in the weeklong orgy of fire, and flames frequently emit from metal sculptures, the mouths of mobile dragons, and flamethrowers mounted on bizarre Mad Max–type "mutant vehicles," as well as from more than 1,000 fire dancers, who perform en masse before the Burn.

Burning Man really comes alive in the cool of the night, as thousands on bicycles—a must for traversing the site—cruise the promenades and avenues, and numerous sound systems and laser projections fill the air with music, often spun by famous DJs, and brighten the sky with mesmerizing patterns. High technology is apparent at every turn, as illuminated kinetic devices spin in every direction and homemade aircraft hover overhead. In contrast to the evening's festive atmosphere, architecturally sublime structures—notably the exquisite annual temples—offer spiritual solace and opportunity for quiet contemplation.

The popularity of Burning Man—which outgrew its San Francisco roots and moved to Nevada in 1990—has seen attendance rise steadily. Participants must bring all their food, copious amounts of water, and other necessities for a week in the desert, as nothing but coffee, tea, lemonade (at the cafe), and ice (for coolers) is sold. Commerce is outlawed and even barter is discouraged in favor of a "gift economy," which seems to ensure that everyone gets the help they need to survive the harsh conditions. The Burning Man paradigm, formulated by founder Larry Harvey, has spread to regional events around the world, and the charitable spin-off organization Burners Without Borders—which started with a massive six-month cleanup effort in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—continues its aid projects in the U.S. and abroad.

Although some shallow readings of the event describe a giant rave or party, Burning Man is essentially focused on art and the community of people who create and enjoy it. The large-scale artworks of Burning Man continue to exert influence and gain legitimacy, press, and interest in the U.S. and beyond, and several installations that originated with the event have been transplanted as public art to the "default world," most notably San Francisco, which has hosted, among other playa artworks, an exquisite Burning Man–style temple by California artist David Best, who raised the bar for art on the playa by erecting magnificent, arabesque structures of recycled wood.

Following the media frenzy over Burning Man's first sold-out event in 2011, and the fierce competition for tickets that ensued, tickets for Burning Man 2012 sold out almost instantly. An unprecedented one-third of 2012 ticketholders attended for the first time, even as well-established camps and art projects had difficulty procuring tickets for thousands of their members, jeopardizing the social and cultural integrity of the event, and creating controversy. In response, prior to the event the Burning Man organization applied for and received permission from the U.S. BLM to increase the maximum 2012 attendance from 50,000 to 60,900 individuals, with a gradual increase to 70,000 over the next five years.

—Gabe Kirchheimer

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Gabe Kirchheimer has photographed Burning Man since 1998, and his BM pictures have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Artforum, Marie Claire, Design House Korea, Domus and other publications. His work continues to be featured by the Burning Man organization, and his classic aerial photo of Burning Man 2000 has been published worldwide and hangs in the Nevada Legislature. For image requests or prints, please contact Gabe.