Each year, thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the nine days of the Burning Man Festival. It’s an extraordinary event that mixes art, hardcore partying and lots of blazing fire. Browse through these 40 photos and you’ll get an idea of just how unique – and bizarre – this festival is. Maybe you’ll even feel like taking a trip there next year to sample its eccentric pleasures.
40. Party in the desert
This remarkable image well illustrates one of the principal facts about the annual Burning Man shindig. To be precise, it’s held in an arid, dusty landscape, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The desolate, featureless plain stretches out towards two mountain ranges: the Jacksons and the Calicos. It’s a suitably weird location to hold the weirdest of wild parties.
39. A tiny bike for a big desert
The Black Rock Desert covers an area of about 1,000 square miles. So you’d have to wonder if this guy’s miniature bike is really the best way to get around a desert that is 20 miles across and extends for 70 miles. We can only hope that he doesn’t have too far to go. At least his goggles should mean he’ll be okay if he gets caught in a sandstorm.
38. Flying nowhere
This nose and forward hull section of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet appeared at Burning Man in 2016 courtesy of the Big Imagination Foundation. The non-profit group crowd funded a seven-year project that involved adapting a real plane. The interior was a kind of chill-out lounge where you could relax, safe in the knowledge that take-off was definitely not imminent. There was even an “emotional baggage check” at the entrance.
Is it a yoga pose, or is this apparently ecstatic woman just pleased to be alive? This shot comes from the 2007 edition of Burning Man, and the lady in the picture was one of 47,079 people who attended that year according to the event’s official website. Which raises the question: who counted every single attendee so precisely?
36. Octopus flame-thrower
A man called Bob Wick took this photo in 2010. Bob works for the Bureau of Land Management, the body that’s responsible for America’s public lands including the Black Rock Desert. When the bureau was established in 1946, the folks running it could hardly have foreseen what one of their patches would be used for. For example, they probably never imagined that they would host a giant octopus-like creature shooting flames from its tentacles.
35. Timothy Leary’s ashes
Yes, that is Susan Sarandon in center-shot, wearing a becoming parody of a wedding dress. In fact, it’s not a marriage that’s being celebrated but a life. Back in 2015, the deceased was Timothy Leary, and his ashes are in that box carried by the duo in black. Leary, described by USA Today as “the late father of LSD,” had passed away in 1996, but his friend Sarandon had kept some of his ashes. There was then a second cremation ceremony inside a chapel built for the occasion which was put to the torch.
34. From high above
Taken in 2012, this extraordinary satellite image shows the distinctive “c” shape of the Burning Man’s desert encampment. You’ll have to peer hard to see them, but the event’s website recorded that there were more than 360 art installations dotted around the scene in that year. The centerpiece, which you can make out in the circular part of the camp, was a pavilion modeled on the Pantheon in Rome with the Burning Man himself set atop. Of course, a massive blaze ultimately consumed the whole lot.
33. Homage to the gods
It’s 2000, and this is Madelaina Bolouc, who hails from Boulder, Colorado. Apparently she’s engaged in a dance of gratitude to Orisha and Obatala. It’s just possible that you don’t immediately recognize those two names. Orisha is a goddess, while Obatala is a god, and both are sacred to various West African peoples. Bolouc is thanking the deities for the clear blue sky and the fluffy white clouds that hang over the desert.
32. Fun on stilts
It’s quite possible that there were more people on stilts at the 2010 Burning Man event than anywhere else in the world at the time. Obviously, rising above the crowd is a perfect way to get the best view of what’s going on in the Black Rock Desert. But with pyromania so popular at Burning Man, they must have taken great care to avoid their wooden stilts going up in flames.
31. Riders on the (sand)storm
These two festival goers, or “burners” as we should properly call them, have conjured up an interesting mode of transport. Only thing is, their four-wheeled pedal-powered machine has no doors or windows. That’s why in a dust storm they’re both wisely wearing gas masks. Such storms are a perennial hazard of Burning Man.
30. Looking pretty
Obviously, if you’re going to spend nine days in the desert, it’s an absolute must that you should appear at your very best. This flamboyant fellow has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into perfecting his look. Although if you bumped into him on a dark night in the desert, you’d be forgiven for taking a startled step or two back.
29. Temple of Transition ablaze
Temples are a big thing at Burning Man and unsurprisingly burning them to the ground is as popular as it is inevitable. This blazing wall of flame is the last hurrah of 2011’s Temple of Transition. The International Arts Mega Crew built the temple with 49,360 feet of timber, all of it certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative you’ll be glad to hear. The structure had a central column linked to five subsidiary towers by walkways. And the whole lot ended up as a pile of ash.
28. Man’s best friend?
Dogs are known for being man’s best friend, but how the Burning Man feels about them we can only guess. In any case, as you’ve probably spotted, these three pooches are not real dogs. Even so, given the “No trespassing” sign beside them, it appears that they have a job to do as guards. We can only speculate about why one of them has an empty Jim Beam bourbon bottle firmly clamped in its jaws.
27. Man rides rabbit
Ever seen a man on a rabbit motorcycle? Neither had we, until now. Weird and wonderful modes of transport are a staple of Burning Man. Even so, a motorbike dressed up as a jack rabbit zooming across the desert does stand out as magnificently eccentric. It’s an undeniably hare-raising sight. Although we don’t know if the bunny was burnt at the end of the festival.
26. Steel and rubber horses
Three horses gallop free across the desert sands. But these steeds have a haunted quality with their flaps of rubber mounted on steel frames. The rubber actually comes from trashed tires scavenged from the wastes of the New Jersey Turnpike. The horses appeared in 2005, which was the 20th year that the long-suffering Burning Man disappeared in a storm of fire.
25. Happy campers
This is what things looked like back in 1995, with crowds considerably smaller than in recent years. In that year, around 4,000 showed up for the desert delights of Burning Man. By contrast, in 2019 not far short of 80,000 attended. Then again the crowd at the first Burning Man in 1986 was an estimated 35 strong. So you could say the event has come a long way.
24. It’s Elvis!
He may have left the building but apparently he was at the Burning Man Festival in 1998. Elvis Presley that is, wearing some bizarre blue face paint. Actually we’ll have to come clean. It is, in truth, a man identified only as Mark from Las Vegas. Definitely not Elvis. But what’s that we spy in the background? A post office? Yes, you can send mail from Burning Man to the folks back home.
23. Time for some television
So you and your two papier-mâché alien buddies have just arrived at Burning Man. What better way to pass some time than by lying on the desert sand to watch a man, also made of papier-mâché, with a TV set seemingly welded on to his face? Just because you’re in the Black Rock Desert, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy all the comforts of home.
22. Desert crossing
Some say the best way to cross a desert is by camel. Others swear by high-powered four-wheel-drive vehicles. But these folks say, “What’s wrong with a small boat on wheels towed by a bicycle?” And that seems entirely appropriate in the crazy parallel world of Burning Man. It would seem, though, that the guy on the bike is getting the raw end of the deal.
21. The devil himself
The truth, we have to admit, is that this is not really the devil in person. Rather more mundanely, it is in fact Mark Day from Santa Cruz, California. The horns are not real, and the coloring is food dye. Which is all a bit of a disappointment. After all, if the devil was going to manifest himself on Earth, wouldn’t he choose Burning Man for the occasion?
20. Dancing with fire
This image of an energetic fire dancer with the Burning Man himself, pre-blaze, in the background takes us back to 1998. That year, the 40-foot Man stood atop a 12-foot pedestal made from hay bales. According to the event’s website, when it came time to destroy him, he exploded in a “huge magnesium burst.”
19. Ancient Egyptians
Cultures from around the world are celebrated at Burning Man. So why not ancient Egypt? That’s what this trio obviously decided back in 1999. What the pharaohs would have made of this desert blowout is a moot point. Although it’s perfectly possible that the various temples built each year would have made them feel right at home.
18. Sealed with a kiss
What would a festival be without some romance? Certainly not Burning Man, that’s for sure. This kissing couple looks like they’re fully into the swing of things in the Black Rock Desert. The occasion is the 2018 edition of the festival when the theme was “I, Robot.” This was a particularly poignant year since it saw the death of Larry Harvey, one of the two Burning Man founding fathers back in 1986.
17. A sting in the tail
It might be a low-powered motorbike, probably better described as a scooter, but this woman’s ride is undeniably striking. Or perhaps we should say it has a sting in the tail. What better way to stand out in a crowd than to dress your wheels as a scorpion? In fact, the Black Rock desert is home to actual scorpions. There are also mountain lions, coyotes, and rattlesnakes around. Which certainly adds a certain frisson to camping there.
16. Anarchy rules
Burning Man is famous for its freewheeling liberties. But, it seems, even anarchists need rules. Cell phones, TVs, and regrets are all forbidden. So are selling stuff or leaving traces in this decontextualized environment, whatever that is. And if you do break any of the rules, making excuses is also against the regulations.
15. Feathers and fur
Bizarrely flamboyant costumes are everywhere at Burning Man, but this guy has taken dressing up just that step further. It’s amazing what a bunch of brightly colored feathers, a fake leopard head, and some strategically placed fur tails can do for your look. The purple wizard in the background seems positively conservative compared to our feathered and furred friend.
14. Temple of Honor
The Burning Man website tells us that this striking structure, the Temple of Honor, was designed by David Best, his fourth effort at Burning Man. According to the website, the temple was “a place to honor each other, the earth, our families, ancestors, and communities.” You could also discard your “dishonor” at the temple, which is good to know.
13. Lots of bones
This woman’s red feather wig and matching lipstick make for an arresting picture. But what’s that gnarled thing in the background? We can reveal that it was the Bone Tree, created by artist Dana Albany for the 1999 Burning Man festival. Aptly enough, it was made entirely of bones. On her website, Albany tells us that “the bone tree represented the cycle of life and death.”
12. Okay for kids?
Is it okay to take your kid to Burning Man? Parents Lori Pirone and Alejando Otero obviously thought so in 2013 as we can see from this fetching photo of their contentedly slumbering 18-month-old infant. The large parasol sheltering the sleeping child certainly looks like an essential accessory given the ferocity of the desert sun.
11. Nambla the Clown
And here we have Nambla the Clown in 2000. He hails from the San Francisco Bay neighborhood and, as you can see, he’s got a thing about candles. Plus he doesn’t seem to mind hot wax running down his face. It has to be said that it’s going to be an absolute nightmare getting the wax off that jacket he’s wearing.
10. The American Dream
Yes, you’ve seen that sign, or one very similar to it, somewhere before. It’s the spitting image of the board that welcomes visitors to Las Vegas, another desert destination as it happens. But this one greeted visitors to Black Rock City, the name of the temporary Burning Man settlement. The sign echoed the theme of the 2008 event: the American Dream.
This is the firework display that preceded the destruction in flames of the Burning Man in 2011. That year the 40-foot Man stood proud on two pyramid-like structures that lifted him 50 feet into the air. It was a vintage year apparently, with record crowds and not a sandstorm to be seen, or be blinded by.
8. Aomori City, Japan
Perhaps the least fun thing about Burning Man is the frequency of dust storms, as you can see from this image. That’s hardly a great surprise since the event is held in the middle of an extremely arid desert. In an average year, not much more than two inches of rain falls on Black Rock Desert.
7. Temple of Promise
This dramatically sweeping structure was the Temple of Promise at Burning Man in 2015. The entrance arch to the building soared 97 feet above the desert floor. But like all Black Rock City structures, it was transient. The Burning Man website tells us that, “The Temple of Promise burned in a solemn, memorable and cleansing holy fire.”
6. Giant bug
This truck has apparently been set upon by a gigantic praying mantis. If the insect is trying to mate with the vehicle, as it appears, it has made a very basic biological error. In fact, husband and wife team Kirk Jellum and Kristen Ulmer made this 40-foot mantis. For fans of vintage transport, we’ll point out that the vehicle is a 1983 GMC dumper truck.
5. Fire art
We’re at the final moments before Burning Man goes up in flames as this fire artist showcases her pyrotechnic skills. The ritual blaze that destroys the Man each year is the climactic finale to the festival. In this case, the effigy stood 60 feet high and was constructed from wood with illumination from neon lighting.
4. Satellite view
Here we see the Black Rock City site as viewed from the TerraSAR-X satellite in 2011 as it glides through space above Nevada. The German-built satellite’s purpose is not simply to take amazing images of large earthbound festivals. It’s actually a commercial venture with the aim of selling images for business and scientific purposes.
3. The Man burns
It’s 2014, and the Burning Ban blazes in a sensational conflagration of orange flames. That year, the Man was 105 feet tall and was ringed by Arab-style tents, which spoke to the festival’s Middle East desert theme of Caravansary. It was a year marked by a torrential rainstorm that must have dampened enthusiasm as it poured down on the unlucky burners.
MOOP stands for “matter out of place.” It’s a central principle of the Burning Man organizers that once the festival is over, no trace of its existence should remain on the desert floor. So any MOOP that is left behind by the burners has to be cleared up. As you can see from this 2013 image, discarded trash includes everything from batteries to cigarette ends and glow sticks. Look closely, and you’ll even spot a couple of dollar bills.
In a scene biblical in its proportions, the burners leave the scene after the end of the 2016 festival. A stream of vehicles of every shape and size crawls across the Black Rock Desert like a massive column of ants. Proving that Burning Man does not spurn high culture, that year the theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop” and featured an exploration of the Italian Renaissance.