In this week’s Lovesourced we talk to Peter Gordon about his Kickstarter project ‘Life and Death – The Temple’; a collection of stunning images taken at the Burning Man Festival 2011 which he aims to publish in a book.
Based in Ireland, Peter, along with his father Ed is part of the photography duo ExploreLight. Primarily landscape and travel photographers, Ed invited his son to collaborate in 2006, a move which has seen the range of their photographic art widening and their work to become exclusively project-based. The duo have received several awards and have had their work displayed extensively in galleries. Most recently, Peter was awarded European Photographer of the Year, Irish Professional Photographer of the Year 2013, Landscape Photographer of the Year and Pictorial and Travel Photographer of the Year, and also won a European Reportage Golden Camera.
In 2011 Peter travelled to the Burning Man Festival, located deep in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, to document the myriad of people, art and activities you can find there. We spoke to him to find out more.
Firstly, can you tell us about your background as an image maker / photographer?
I have a degree in History and Politics and a Masters in International Security and Conflict studies. Five years study while taking pictures on the side. My Dad is a photographer and we used to travel and take pictures together when I was in college. I suppose I had two educations in my early twenties. One through university and another through photography, travel and my father. At the end of my formal education I had to make a choice. As you can imagine I went with photography.
My last project before ‘Life and Death’ was called ‘Wild Garden.’ Quite a different theme. No people, just wild beautiful landscapes in a county of Ireland called Wicklow. It was all shot on transparency film, primarily on a Pentax 67.
Who are your photography heroes and how would you describe your own style?
I’m an aesthetic guy when it comes to image making. I love some of the documentary work by Sabastiao Salgado and Steve Mc Curry. My Dad has also been a great influence on my work. I love the landscape work of Murray Fredericks.
In terms of my own style it feeds into the creation of images that are graphically compelling. I love landscape but I also love storytelling. I see the story and the graphic quality of the image hand-in-hand so my style always seeks to make the images engaging on both levels.
What was the motivation behind ‘Life and Death – The Temple’ and what excited you most about it?
Since 2000 there has been a Temple built at Burning Man. At its core its a spiritual space for people to celebrate life, oftentimes through marriage, and also to grieve and deal with the less pleasant emotional parts of our existence. This is done by inscribing messages on the Temple walls, meditating, shared experience and letting the building burn at the end of the week. Its a cathartic experience.
In 2011 the Temple was known as the Temple of Transition and was built by a crew of artists called IAM. One of the leads is an old friend of mine called Diarmaid Horkan from Ireland. He got me involved to make some images of the structure as part of a fundraising drive to build the Temple. The idea was that the images would be supplied as fine art prints retrospectively in return for a pledge of support to help build the Temple.
That was my initial remit and motivation. However, as I spent more time at the Temple I saw a genuinely compelling documentary story unfolding. More than this, as I asked around I was told it had never been told through photography before. I was engaged in the experience, excited by its nuance and complexity, and wowed by the amazing light and aesthetic that it was all being told through.
How did you find the Burning Man experience? Was it your first time?
I loved the Burning Man experience. If you’re looking for perfect creature comforts then look somewhere else, especially if your sleeping in a tent like I was. It gets chilly at night, dusty and warm in the day which makes for quite unpleasant sleeping conditions in the tent. A campervan next time I think. Nevertheless, it really didn’t bother me. The atmosphere and location are amazing. The people are fun, open and interesting. Its a creative melting pot. Who needs a comfortable sleep or dust free clothes? Not I.
It wasn’t my first time. I spent a wild summer in San Francisco back in 2001 and made the pilgrimage to Burning Man with a group of great (but baby faced at the time) mates to the Black Rock Desert. I had just turned 20. Forget the camper, I didn’t even have the tent on that trip.
Pick your three favourite photos from the collection and explain why you chose them.
I love this image because it sums up the whole project perfectly. The presence of life and death at the Temple. The atmosphere of this divine structure with the dust and light passing through heavenly from the top but dark and black at the bottom. The cyclist to me is unsure whether they’re in heaven or hell.
I love this image because it shows the atmosphere inside the Temple. The meditation being led and the gongs in the corner. The pink bag in the centre of the image says ‘love more’. It sums up the whole atmosphere. Graphically as well everything is balanced and is drawn towards this bag.
I think its important to illustrate the context of the Temple experience. There’s lots of partying going on too and ‘The Playa’ is where it happens. This was shot from the upper level of the Temple looking back over the playa floor. The image was made at sunset as the light and dust combined perfectly.
What equipment did you shoot with?
Nikon d3x, 24 PC lens, 24 – 70 2.8, 70 – 200 2.8 Aquatech bag to keep the dust out.
Your work won you European Photographer of the Year and a European Reportage Golden Camera (among others). Did you expect this?
The images were doing great in judging so I’d hoped to pick something up but to scoop the lot in Ireland and Europe was truly an honour. The quality of some of the work submitted by other photographers was really stunning.
Most memorable moment from Burning Man?
Image-wise when I clicked ‘Between Life and Death’ I knew something special had happened that didn’t just looked graphically good, but really told the story as well. Socially? Walking across the Playa with just my wife at 6am watching the sun come up.
Burning Man has a traditionally anti-commercial undercurrent. Has trying to publish a book of imagery from the festival caused any friction? What would your response to that be?
Its more of an over than undercurrent. Its an essential part of the ethos. In terms of making a book everything needs to be run past the people at Burning Man in terms of what you publish but Ive gone through the right channels and sought permissions. It’s primarily a process to stop artists at the festival being exploited. In terms of the commercial nature of making a book I know from experience there isn’t much money in it anyway. Anything that does come out of it will also be split between me, the IAM crew and Burning Man itself to help build more projects in the desert.
What’s next for ‘Life and Death – The Temple’?
At the moment we’re running our Kickstarter project to help fund printing the book, design and a launch in Dublin. From there I’m looking for spaces to bring the project across to the USA and further a field in Europe. Onwards and upwards…