Eye on the playa

Pictures tell the story of six years at Burning Man

Shon Dahlgren’s image “676,” a silver rocket at Burning Man.

Shon Dahlgren’s image “676,” a silver rocket at Burning Man.


Idea Fabrication Labs
Winchester Goose

Photographers are storytellers. And the good ones tell their stories not in their artist statements or in the descriptions of their work, but instead with scenes that spark interaction as they draw the viewer into piecing together a narrative.

Modesto-based photographer Shon Dahlgren is one of the good ones, and with the collection of images that make up his Shadows in Dust exhibit currently on display at Idea Fabrication Labs, he tells a new version of the story of the Burning Man festival. Dahlgren tweaks the narrative by capturing the people and scenes of Black Rock City over the course of six visits to the playa (2009-14) from new, unique perspectives, including some that hardly seem like they took place at the same event.

Take image “186” (instead of titles, the photos were randomly numbered/named at the gallery), for instance, a landscape of foothills in the desert with a woman and little boy in the foreground with their backs turned to the camera. Other than what looks like a couple of specks that could be people walking in the distance, there’s no indication that there’s a giant art city filled with thousands of party people nearby. In fact, under the overcast sky at dawn (dusk?), the sand of the desert looks cool and grayish-blue, almost like a big lake.

Many of the photos of the art or familiar Burning Man features get taken somewhere new simply by the way Dahlgren chose to frame them. A shiny silver spaceship (“676”) is cropped against a blue sky to look like it might actually be ready for countdown. The giant wooden cathedral is shot at night from the inside looking up at a lit chandelier and the intricately patterned ceiling (“88”) making the scene seem like opening night at a fancy opera house. And many of the portraits feature the subjects pulled away from the bigger scene and artificially lit for striking shots highlighting the individual characters.

Dahlgren used both film and digital cameras in the desert, choosing the former when the dust and blowing sand were too much. And adding extra elements of mood and texture was the fact that he largely used expired rolls of film. As a result, many took on a ghostly hue once exposed, adding an aged character to some shots and making them seem to be from some long-ago secret Burning Man of the 1960s. One of the best, “266,” is a shot of The Man sculpture at the end of a nearly barren road in what looks like some mysterious dust-choked planet far from Earth. And my favorite of the film shots was “BCN” (short for “bacon”), featuring two burners literally standing on the edge of “INSANITY” during a dust storm.

There are also plenty of clean, gorgeous digital shots that capture the range of people and expressions: See “676,” the rocket, as well as all of the portraits, as well as a nicely balanced shot of a female burner decked out in a fuzzy hat looking out at players on the playa as a giant bundle of colorful balloons floats against the blue sky (“687”).

Props must be given to the IFL crew for putting together such a fully realized show with Dahlgren despite it being assembled and mounted as a last-minute replacement for a previously scheduled exhibit that fell through. If you hurry, you can catch the full exhibit at the lab one last time, tonight (Aug. 6, 6:30-9:30 p.m.). After that, the show will be moving downtown to the Winchester Goose (beginning Aug. 11), where the photos will rotate on the walls for the remainder of the month.