The Man, 2011

The Man means different things to different people, of course, and even then the meaning varies with the day of the week. For those lucky enough to be there the Friday and Saturday before the Gate opens (a select group, given pre-admission tickets to help set up the larger camps--I was lucky enough to do this my first year) the Man is one of the only pieces of Great Art around. Folks come out well in advance to construct the piece, and at the beginning it towers over an almost empty desert.

After the gates open competing giant sculpture begins to arrive, and the Man is no longer the only exciting thing on the playa. This year it wasn\'t even the biggest--this time the Temple was over 130 feet tall. Still, at 104 feet, the Man is pretty easy to see, and it\'s central location (literally--Black Rock City is laid out in a giant circle with the Man at the precise center) means that it serves as a convenient landmark. No matter how drunk, lost, or confused you are Monday through Wednesday, you can (almost) always find him standing there, in the center of everything. Of course, there are occasionally dust storms that obscure everything outside of a few feet, but this year that only ever happened once or twice. I was actually a little disappointed.

On Wednesday night I made sure to get to bed early, because I wanted to experience dawn on the playa Thursday morning. It was still chilly out, and although there were inevitably a few parties going on in the distance, there were only a few thousand people awake--most of them photographers, with a few yoga practitioners heading towards the Temple. I know that I should just choose my favorite \"sunrise at the Man\" photo and paste it here, but I\'m really proud of these so you\'re getting three of them. On of the things I wanted to do with these was to try out a few different F-stops and exposure times, which is why the same dawn is three different colors. One of the things I forgot to do was to write down what settings I was using.

Please do click on these images to see larger versions.

By Thursday night, and then increasingly through Saturday, there begin to be so many distractions and so much neon in the dark that the Man is no longer good for finding your way home at the end of the day. One develops a technique of walking towards the mass of light and away from the fields of darkness--eventually you\'re bound to find something you recognize, and it\'s usually the Man. Until Saturday, of course, when they burn the whole thing to the ground. This year, literally half an hour after the Man was burnt, I tried to get my bearings my looking for it--it\'s amazing how quickly one acquires these habits!

He was different this year: for the first time he was depicted in motion, striding from one peak to another. At least he was from most angels--from certain angles it just looked like his legs were crossed, standing in line for the porta-potties like the rest of us.

The peaks represent, among other things, the transition of the festival from a privately owned LLC to a not-for-profit. The whole thing started with a handful of people on the beach, but now it\'s grown to such a huge size that private ownership just feels wrong.

When it was just that handful of people the Man simply stood on a few bales of hay. Legend has it that during the first event, a women walked up and held his hand as he burned--it is not advisable to attempt this today. In point of fact the Rangers, Burning Man\'s elite group of tough-as-nails, all volunteer veteran Burner security force, will firmly escort you away if you try to get within fifty feet. And for good reason! After everyone has gathered, and the dust storms have died down, and the incredible fire shows have ended, there\'s the most amazing fireworks display you\'ve ever seen. No, really--I don\'t care where you saw the Fourth of July, Black Rock City does it better.

I was sitting next to another three-year veteran, who smugly leaned over and said, \"All these first-timers think that the show started with the fireworks, but you and I know that it\'s the explosions that really blow your mind!\" I\'m sure he was, in part, referring to the seventy-foot-high fireball that set last year\'s Man ablaze. It was one of the most impressive things I\'d seen in my life. And, sure enough, three or four huge columns of fire exploded from the base, each one in a different color! My friend had just enough time to share a smug, \"See, I knew it was coming\" look with me before *WHOOM* there was a tremendous explosion of flame! I\'m not sure how far back we where, but it must have been fifty or sixty feet at least. The heat was so intense that we all started seriously considering taking a few steps back, even still.

It burned for just the right amount of time to be satisfying, but not so long as to get boring (and yes, even sitting in a crowd of forty-thousand people watching a hundred-foot-tall effigy burn to ash can get boring after half an hour or more, especially if you need to pee). Finally, the right-hand peak collapsed, and the man seemed to jump head first into the desert. At that point the fire crew verified that all of the free standing structures had fallen and the crowd raced towards the flames for the traditional running-thrice-around-the-fire ritual. I did this my first year, and again last year. This year, feeling the full weight of the crowd, I decided that I could come back later.

When I did return, the next afternoon around 1:00, parts of the man were still on fire. Ash that had smoldered all night long would get exposed to oxygen and burst back into flame. For the most part, however, if had cooled enough to explore and I joined a bunch of folks looking for mementos and relics. To this day the soles of my shoes remain half melted.

Liquefied neon was the most prized relic, especially the more rare purple neon, but people were also happy to find bolts and washers. One fellow donned a full firefighter uniform, gloves and all, and waded into the midst of the embers to twist off pieces for the crowd. Another fellow cooked popcorn on the ashes.

At that point I was well and truly out of film, but just imagine a group of dust- and soot-colored squatters sifting the ruins of a giant sculpture like survivors of an epic tragedy or a Viking raid. Except that everyone was also smiling, and occasionally someone yelled out, \"Hey, I found a bunch of neon shards over here!\"