The 15 years of aerial photos of Black Rock City in photographer Will Roger’s new book give us scenes similar to interplanetary colonies in a sci-fi film. These settlements, however, are fully of the Earth.
“Compass of the Ephemeral: Aerial Photography of Black Rock City through the Lens of Will Roger” takes readers high above the annual Burning Man festival, staged every August in Nevada’s stark Black Rock Desert, and gives us an eagle-eye view of, inarguably, one of the most unique gatherings on the planet.
What began as an inauspicious gathering on a San Francisco beach in 1986 has evolved into a week-long celebration of freedom, creativity and unconditional love. In 2019, 75,000 people from all points of the globe attended. (The Burning Man board hopes to decide in June whether the 2020 celebration will happen.)
“Burning Man is unique in that all the people are the participants,” said Roger in a phone interview from his ranch in tiny Gerlach, Nevada. The photographer is one of six “cultural founders” of Burning Man and in charge of Black Rock City’s Department of Public Works, responsible for constructing and de-constructing the temporary metropolis.
“(The festival) is not a spectator event. It stimulates creative energy and unconditional love. It’s humanity in its very best glory.”
Roger discovered Burning Man in 1994 and immediately became heavily involved. Then, in 2005, “I had the opportunity to go up in an airplane … and take photos. I realized we were making land art. From the air, (Black Rock City) looked magnificent. I thought, I need to do this every year. My intention was to create the best image I could, sign them and give them out as gifts.”
The book’s collection of aerial photos, from 2005 to 2018, text entries (especially one on the history of Burning Man written by William L. Fox, a director at the Nevada Museum of Art), and additional ground-level photos give readers who have and have not attended Burning Man a glimpse of the enormous scope of operations and the creativity of organizers and participants.
Imagine, if you can, thousands dressed in bizarre costumes while others wear nothing but a 30-pound bag of ice to stay cool in triple-digit temperatures; cartoon-like, “mutant” vehicles transporting anyone throughout Black Rock City’s 5.7 square miles; 50-foot-high sculptures towering above the desert floor; music, drama and dance performances 24/7; and at week’s end, a spectacular conflagration of a multi-stories-high wooden man (hence the name of the festival), “giving affirmation to anti-consumerism and self-expression.”
“People say, ‘Burning Man changed my life,’” Roger said. “You get to see how humans can live on the planet in harmony with Mother Nature. The artwork is awe-inspiring. You become present, transformed. It creates awe — a common experience, a community.”
Chapters of “Compass” are organized by year, and each begins with that year’s artfully designed ticket and “Burning Man Survival Guide,” and a map of the Black Rock City plan. This graphic design, in the shape of a segmented arc, comes with a fascinating story that makes clear why the once free-form, chaotic happening now requires a coordinated orchestration with defined boundaries that keeps participants safe and oriented.
The other mandate is that, after the festival has ended, the entire city must disappear. “Leave no trace” is a highly promoted mantra. (Those who leave a mess may not return.) It takes a herculean effort by paid workers and volunteers to return the Black Rock Desert to the purview of Mother Nature.
“The takeaway from my book is that Black Rock City and Burning Man has magic — that it’s a miracle” Roger said. “It’s temporary … and it’s ephemeral. I think you see that in my photos.” Visit willroger.com and facebook.com/willroger.