Desert on fire

Holly Kreuter

Burning Man photographer Holly Kreuter shot “Temple of Rudra 1998” in the early morning hours.

Burning Man photographer Holly Kreuter shot “Temple of Rudra 1998” in the early morning hours.

Anyone can take a good photograph at Burning Man, right? Just point and shoot. As long as your finger isn’t over the lens, and your camera is actually on, you’re bound to take photos that people will take pleasure in inspecting. So long as the focus is on the folks and the fine art, you’ll come up with some good shots—granted, good shots that will look, for the most part, like everyone else’s.

If you don’t want your photos to look like the camera-toting layman’s, it takes extra deliberation and dedication to make them distinctive. Such a photographer is Holly Kreuter, who’s been photographing Burning Man since 1995. The first component that makes her photos unique is actually something that’s missing: the human element. Of the 20 or so photographs on display at Sierra Arts Gallery, only two focus specifically on people. In most, humans are not present at all, and in the ones where they are, it’s predominantly their profiles and the backs of their heads that viewers see, à la Joel and his robot buddies in Mystery Science Theater 3000. Kreuter says the dearth of humans isn’t the most conscious decision.

“I’m not attracted to people first. I’m attracted to what people have done, what they have created,” she says over a cell phone, riding passenger in a truck on the way to Burning Man from her home in Emeryville, Calif. “I’m also kind of shy about intruding in [a person’s] moment.” Despite humanity’s absence in the past, for Burning Man 2004, Kreuter plans to diversify and take some portraits.

Kreuter has photographed all over the world. She’s a traveler first and a photographer second. She has been to the Philippines, Turkey, Chile, all over Europe, Finland and Scandinavia, and she says she has had the best time shooting in India.

“India is like Burning Man,” Kreuter says. “It’s an incredibly colorful, gorgeous, festive place.”

The second feature that makes Kreuter’s photographs atypical is the time of day during which they’re shot. Kreuter likes to shoot at night. She’s also partial to the light created at dusk and dawn, which gives her photos a grainy and otherworldly feeling, amplified by the lack of earthlings.

In “Deerhead and Moon 2001,” what looks more like a papier-mâché ram head, with hollowed-out eyes, is set against a Mars-colored sky. At the bottom of the frame, there is an orange haze which turns redder and darker at the top of the frame, where the moon appears. With nothing in the photo other than the animal head and the ruddy sky, the photo could have been taken thousands of miles from Burning Man. It’s a lonely shot.

“Temple of Rudra 1998” could also be described as lonesome. The piece of art Kreuter photographed is credited to Pepe Ozan, and it looks very Grecian—clay steps leading to a platform with a pillar to the side of the steps and a wire-mesh goddess reaching up to the sky at the pillar’s base.

The artwork takes up only half of the frame, while the rest of the space shows the vast openness of the desert with mountains rising in a distant background. Because of the dusky dawn light, the clay of the desert floor could easily be water, and the goddess could be staring off into an empty ocean. Even though the image is slightly granular, there is crispness in the composition.

“I don’t like lot of clutter," Kreuter says. "I look for beautiful light and subjects that are well composed. … I don’t shoot a million images."