Cristina Garcia Rodero
So, I’ve pretty much not had a weekend (even though it’s a 3 day weekend here! WTF!) because I’ve been busy clone stamping dust off 350 of a certain photographer’s files because a certain photographer didn’t take the 10 minutes required to clean said dust off of the sensor. Needless to say, I’d never really looked at this photographers work before, and when I had, I was pleasantly surprised. I won’t hold the dust against her.
This photographer, Cristina Garcia Rodero, has done a bunch of different projects, but one that drew my attention was her Burning Man portfolio. Not necessarily because it’s great (it’s okay), but because its the best treatment of the subject that I’ve seen so far.
For those of you who don’t know, Burning Man is an eight day annual festival that takes place in the desert in Nevada. It is an orgy of… um… everything, as far as I can tell. There are no spectators – everyone who is there must participate, and the entire event culminates in the burning of a giant effigy, the so-called “Burning Man.”
The entire thing is a little ridiculous, as the Burning Man flickr tag evidences, and most photographic depictions do little more than show what occurred, conveying a weird sense of wonder that these things actually go on… The general photographic sentiment seems to be “Holy crap, you guys, look what I saw! Isn’t this awesome?! I can’t believe we can get away with this stuff!” even from the most serious photographers (Richard Renaldi did an e-book, available here, for example).
Burning Man is a kind of self parody, of course (the Burning Man sculpture was burned down early this year by a protester who claimed the festival was getting too corporate), but it is also incredibly popular. I guess, in some ways, this 8 days of utopian anarchy in the desert provides an important outlet for a lot of people, and acts as a weird kind of social safety valve. So many Burning Man testimonials consist of variations on the “I found myself out there, man” theme that you gotta wonder what people weren’t finding in here…
Rodero’s project conveys a bit of this, I think. First off, she photographs it in black and white, a format usually given over to “serious” documentary projects. This choice also has the secondary effect of muting the day glo colors that seem to define the settlement that grows up around the festival in opposition to more drab daily life – Rodero’s pictures look less like visualizations designed to induce an acid trip and more like an anthropological study (for better or for worse), in the same tradition as Gary Winogrand, or Bill Brandt, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Maya Deren.
Rodero’s pictures also have a much looser focus on the Burners (as they like to be called) that look good, which means there are a lot fewer photographs of people in extravagant costumes and young women with gorgeous bodies. Instead, she focusses on the rites and rituals of the place. In one picture, for example, she photographs a vast group of people simply lying inert, with no explicable purpose. What other explanation can there be, except ritual? In another shot, she catches two people wandering in burkas, a costume seemingly out of place in this festival of hippie expression. The weird thing is – the burkas fit in.
It’s also weirdly notable that Rodero never includes a photo of the Burning Man actually burning. A decision that seems to negate the idea of the festival, but actually subverts the whole purpose of visualizing it. The burning of the effigy references, of course, all sorts of pagan festivals in so many different cultures – and it’s usually an annual thing designed to mark the passing or beginning of a certain season. But Rodero doesn’t have the climax (so to speak) which places the entire event, visually narrated, in a place outside of the annual commemoration. Without the Burning Man, the project is a documentation of rituals instead of a documentation of a ritual.
At any rate, the Burning Man project fits on a continuum with Rodero’s other projects, among them are projects on the rites and rituals of modern Spain and another on the religious culture of Haiti. This places it firmly in the context of a culturally condoned break with normalcy, akin to other religious rights. I think the reason that Rodero’s project is so much better than other Burning Man projects (god knows there are enough of them) is that she approaches the subject knowing that it is really strange, and it is also not that strange.