Artist Interview with Burning Man Photographer Patrick Roddie
Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
Patrick Roddie witnesses much of the world through the optical glass of a Nikon 50mm f1.4 lens. He sees through the manufactured eye of the camera and connects with the spirit of the person. The result is a photograph as true as what he sees with the naked eye.
The San Francisco self-taught photographer has been attending Burning Man for 15 years. His photographs allow those of us who can’t attend the festival to live vicariously through his imagery.
What we see when we look at Patrick’s images aren’t just the muted colors of the playa and the infinite hues of the sky. Through his eyes we see and we feel joy.
Patrick has an artist’s eye, but he also has a dissenter’s voice. An activist, avid reader and researcher, Patrick challenges the status quo. He isn’t afraid to speak out.
The Ignite.me team had the opportunity to interview Patrick to learn more about his work, his vision and the philosophy that drives his innovation, creativity, and exploration.
How do you make that intimate connection with the people that is so evident in your photographs?
Patrick: Nobody finds it remarkable when babies and pets do it as part of their everyday lives. Ask any new parent or dog owner. Our natural state is to be present and connect with other sentient beings. Our Prussian education system goes to great lengths to distract us from our awareness of this innate ability, long enough that we forget we ever had it. Whether it has anything to do with the pineal gland, “third eye,” sixth sense or simply the electromagnetic field our bodies and brains generate from the tiny electrical impulses we constantly broadcast, I really can’t say, but it does come standard. It seems most people have forgotten it and feel like isolated beings, disconnected and separate from the rest of sentient life – while nothing is further from the truth. All you have to do is look. I can’t decide whether it’s too simple or too complex to explain.
I think that’s why cats and babies like me – when I visit someone’s home where an otherwise shy cat lives, the cat will look at me, we’ll acknowledge each other and pretty much right away s/he will be rubbing on my leg and purring on my lap. Maybe Bill Hicks was right – “Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”
I had done this series of rigidly uniform – yet wildly varied – pictures of hips, which later became my first and so far only book, published by Chronicle Books in 2005. (I was flattered to hear the SFMOMA bookstore was selling it under “photographic monographs.”) I did as much as possible to eliminate variables – similar framing, pose (hands were trickiest to keep uniform, yet natural looking), lighting (ideally with the sun low-ish in the sky behind me over my left shoulder offset about 30 degrees) and a bunch of other stuff I won’t bore you with.
Since I’m a people photographer, I wanted to do a series of portraits as uniform (and again wildly varied) as the hips series.
But I quickly saw a problem; no matter how consistent I kept my composition, lighting and whatnot, every subject would be in a different mental place. And no matter what I did or brought to the interaction, every person would react differently because they comprised their own unique blend of nature and nurture – their core being combined with their sum life experience up until the moment I asked to take their picture. Or put more simply; if I was to give everyone a cupcake, some might be famished and thrilled to get it, others might have some negative association with cupcakes or fond early memories of helping their mother bake them. They could even have stomach flu or be allergic – no matter the variable, I could not elicit a consistent response.
Then it occurred to me to put myself in a uniform mental space before I approached each person. Since I am half of the interaction (or a third – the Burning Man environment played no small part), that would remove a huge amount of variability, I thought.
The easiest uniform state of mind to reach I decided was to be at peace. Pause, take a breath, center myself and not quite say “om” to myself, but that kind of thing. Then I’d approach whoever I wanted to photograph, connect with them and take their picture, all while remaining present with them.
If at the time I’d realized how ambitious this was, I wouldn’t have thought I could pull it off. But it did work; within seconds of the beginning of each encounter, most people synced to my own presence and calm.
Of course, that’s not an uncommon state of being at Burning Man and I may simply have been drawn to like minds, but part of me likes to believe I at least partially influenced their state of mind with my presence.
It makes sense when you think about it. When I consider human behavior, I try to picture it in a prehistoric context – pre verbal. Say you have a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers and one of them is starting to come down with some illness. He or she is not going to make a big announcement about it; it’s up to the empathy and perception within others in the group to ensure it’s noticed and they aren’t left behind for the saber tooth tigers. It’s a valuable evolutionary trait. We pretty much read minds. And write, come to think of it. There are people you can’t help but feel good being around – and others who (justifiably) give you the willies. Our brains really are receiver/ transmitters. Anyone who has been to Burning Man knows this; when you’re amongst 50,000 gleeful people, trying to be miserable can be as difficult as holding a beach ball underwater.
You also photograph weddings. Many of your Burning Man photographs examine love in a different setting. Your photographs of couples at the festival are pure joy. What have you learned about love from both of these life-changing events?
Patrick: Although many do get married at Burning Man, it’s more of a place where people fall in love – a very different experience to already being in love. While openly proclaiming your devotion is a beautiful thing, it can’t match the intensity of that first stolen glance, your first kiss. Don’t get me wrong, weddings are replete with love and it’s absurdly easy to capture. All I do is frame two people interacting, wait a few seconds and something beautiful and real will almost certainly happen.
But there’s so much more than just romantic love at BurningMan. To me it seems that all those thousands of people expressing good will, empathy, selflessness, gifting and warmth collectively manifest an almost tangible entity of Love. It explains the almost comical levels of serendipity we accept as the norm on the playa. There’s even a truism/saying for it: “the playa provides.”
What attracted you to Burning Man and do you attend other festivals or cultural events?
Patrick: It took me a while to actually go to Burning Man after hearing about it in about 1995. It was drawn to the free-form, exuberant spirit of people who had been there, who spoke of it being a life changing experience, albeit impossible to explain. I’m pretty low key and wasn’t sure I’d fit in; I wasn’t particularly artistic, I don’t dance, dress up for Halloween and certainly didn’t relish the idea of running around naked. But once I finally arrived in 1998, my concerns were laid to rest. Within five minutes of getting off the bus, I’d stripped to join dozens of happy naked people being refreshingly drizzled on under One Tree. Half an hour later I met a guy who’d built a full size trebuchet (medieval catapult) to fling bowling balls, burning bales of hay and car tires across the desert for no reason other than he felt like doing it.
Now I was starting to get it; Burning Man was about freedom, allowing yourself to do things you’d otherwise dismiss before they even reached your conscious mind. And while there was no shortage of extroverted, spiritual, elaborately costumed beautiful people creating fantastic art, it clearly wasn’t a requirement and I felt completely at home. Because it was OK to be and do whatever you wanted, you could also truly be yourself. The interactions I had with other burners were refreshingly unguarded; people were freed from their “default world” shells and connected directly with each other. And more than everything else, that’s what keeps pulling me back to BurningMan. I’m sure other events are fantastic, but so far, Burning Man is the only one I go to.
Is it the desert light that makes your Burning Man photographs look so luscious and saturated with color? What kind of equipment do you use on the playa? How to you contend with the heat and dust?
Patrick: The light at Burning Man can be sublime. The lightly colored playa provides a warm fill light. Dust storms give you a 360 degree soft box, but my favorite light of all is in the last 30 minutes before the sun hits the mountains and there’s just enough dust kicked up to soften it a touch. One of my enduring frustrations is that it’s also the time when most people have already headed back to camp to prepare for the night’s festivities and I can’t find anyone to shoot. The 15 minutes after the sun reaches the mountains are incredible as well. But the light takes a distant second place to the warmth, openness and connectedness you find in most people you meet there. I’d rather photograph homely people in crappy light, but who are imbued with the spirit many feel at Burning Man rather than emotionally closed-off supermodels in perfect light and the most gorgeous settings on the planet. It’s not even close.
I’d like to take credit for the rich color of my pictures, but that belongs to the Japanese engineers who invented Fuji Velvia slide film, the only film I used for ten years at the burn. Unfortunately, I had to switch to digital in 2009; the cost of up buying and processing up to 200 rolls a year was more than I could afford. Digital is better than it used to be, but compared to Velvia, it’s a flat, washed out facsimile. Maple-flavored syrup is not the same as maple syrup. Although I could have tweaked the digital images to give them a Velvia-ish quality, that would break my rule of never cropping or Photoshopping an image. What you see is what I saw through my lens.
In terms of equipment, up until 2008 I used a Nikon F100 with the aforementioned Velvia 50 slide film (rated at 40asa) and a Nikon 50mm f1.4 lens. Since 2009 I’ve used a Nikon D700 with the same lens. Because the 50mm matches the focal length of our own eyes it lets me capture what I saw and how I saw it. It’s not considered a good portrait lens because when you get as close as I do, features get distorted. But conversely, because of the distortion, you see the images as if you were as close to the subjects as I actually was, reinforcing the sense of intimacy. And shooting wide open at 1.4, I can direct the viewer to see where or on which eye I am (literally) focused on.
Dust isn’t much of an issue since I don’t change lenses and the one I use isn’t a big zoom acting like a bellows. Dust is even less of a problem with film – with every shot, a pristine frame of film emerges from the roll. Sometimes dust would collect on the right hand side of the frame as the film slid by, but I’d just scoop it out with a pinky. But whether film or digital, judicious use of gaffer tape and gallon Ziploc bags keeps most of the dust out. I also bring multiple UV filters in case they get scratched up. Keeping film from cooking required copious amounts of dry ice, an airtight cooler, space blankets and bungee cords.
Have you always had such a great eye? You were born in Belfast. When did you come to America and how did Ireland sink itself into your soul and affect your perception?
Patrick: We all see the world differently. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I watched a lot of people look through my Hips book – every fresh set of eyes saw something I’d completely missed. You’d think in a world of objects we’d see things with at least some objectivity, but nope. People seem to like the way I see things and I’m grateful for that. I’m not sure if I see the world exactly the way I did as a child, but it can’t be completely different. I have gotten better at recording what I see, and you can see that in the progression of my style throughout the years at BurningMan.
I’ve been in San Francisco since 1994, but Northern Ireland is a big part of me, even though I haven’t lived there since the mid 80s. We Irish like to talk. A lot. While I was growing up, Belfast had one degree of separation; if you met someone you didn’t know, you’d invariably know someone else in common. We’re a lot more direct as well. If there was someone else waiting for a bus with you, they wouldn’t start a conversation with introductory small talk about weather, sports or bus schedules. Instead, they’d be straight into the crap their brother-in- law pulled the night before, or whatever else was bugging them at the time. It’s refreshing and I miss it. Ireland also instilled in me a healthy (and well-deserved) skepticism of authority, politicians and other self-anointed leaders. It also taught me never to underestimate people, profound wisdom comes from the unlikeliest of sources.
I love your portraits of children, that is where the truth of humanity really lies. You seem to be able to capture that essence in the eyes of everyone you photograph. How do you do that? What do you see in their eyes?
Patrick: It’s all about being present, regardless of how you get there. When you’re present, whoever you’re with is also more likely to be present. We all resent our self-imposed cages of separation and yearn to be free, to be ourselves. When we meet someone who is open, we jump at the chance to safely open ourselves too. That’s when I take the picture.
One other thing: I completely familiarize myself with my camera and its settings – framing, depth of field, exposure modes, focus points, whatever – so I can take the picture with muscle memory without pulling a fraction of my attention from my subject. I don’t break our connection until after I’ve thanked them and headed off to do whatever’s next. I’m not completely monomaniacal; I also pay attention to the color, direction and intensity of the light, composition, surroundings and the whole of the setting before I raise the camera to my eye, but even then I’m still connected, appreciating them through the lens in the context of their surroundings.
Funny thing I’ve noticed is that animals and children can tell I haven’t broken eye contact even though there’s a camera temporarily between us, but many adults don’t know where to look – especially those I haven’t managed to fully connect with. And by no means can I always make that connection, people feel safe inside their self-built prisons.What do I see in their eyes? Wow. I see them, and I hope people looking at the pictures I get can share at least part of this too. It’s complete and endless, like David Bowman passing through the monolith.
You seem like a very humble man. By that, I mean while trying to find a bio about you online, there was very little personal information. You don’t go on about your accomplishments. What do you want people to know about you?
Patrick: I don’t think I’m falsely modest; I have always considered myself incredibly fortunate to see the world the way I do and have some ability to catch that on film. I’m also fortunate to be gifted in a medium which can be easily appreciated. The engineers who coded the Mac text editor BBEdit are even more gifted, but only a subset of people can recognize it. The artistry of Steve Wozniak’s disk controller for the Apple II surpasses anything in the MOMA.
Being recognized for pictures I’ve taken is nice, but not nearly as rewarding as actually taking them. I become completely immersed in the process; it’s the most intense, fulfilling experience I can imagine.
I haven’t done much in the way of promotion, PR, marketing, entering photo contests, seeking press coverage or even gallery shows. I don’t have a methodical business mind and spent way too much of the last 15 years struggling to keep a roof over my head. To be honest, I mostly relied on my high Google ranking for “Burning Man photos” to somehow bring me work (it rarely did). Perhaps I thought a latter day Peggy Guggenheim would pluck me from obscurity.
Besides, awards aren’t all they’re cracked up to be; Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was nice that a picture I took at Center Camp during a dust storm was chosen to be the cover image for a major exhibition at Denmark’s Louisiana MOMA in 2011, apparently one of the world’s top art museums. It would have been nicer if they told me they were going to use it, asked permission beforehand, or even invited me to the opening. Still waiting for an apology on that one.
But apart from my ability to take pictures, my resume’s a bit thin. I was a college dropout (physics) a mediocre newspaper reporter and didn’t exactly take the world by storm with my one-man Macintosh repair business. Oh, and before the Mac thing, I once won an outstanding performance award as (I kid you not) “blank assistant II” in the development and training division of the human resources department of the University of California, San Francisco. And so did everyone else in the division.
Many people know you because of your photographs. You are also an activist. How do the two merge? What woke you up? Can you tell us how and why you are trying to wake people up and see what you see?
Patrick: At its essence, activism is about connecting and communicating with people, so the way I take pictures isn’t completely divorced from it. Empathy helps – and it compels me to act.
In any ecosystem there are predators and prey. Humanity is no exception. Their names may have changed across the ages, but we have always had a predator class, or “the scumbags” as I affectionately call them. In The Godfather book and movie the most powerful crime families colluded to work in their collective self-interest. They fought amongst themselves from time to time but presented a unified front to outsiders. This model can be seen in high school cafeterias, offices and chicken coops, so it’s naive to think it can’t apply at a global level. The world’s most powerful families control international finance, foment wars, appoint presidents and prime ministers – and consider us lower than cattle.
But they are not the “good shepherds” they portray themselves to be. In fact, they’d much prefer there were a lot less of us taking up space on their planet. While they have controlled finance, natural resources, trade, media, religion, and through politics military might, we have always had the numbers – and they hate that. Population control has always been their obsession; even Plato extolled it in The Republic. The 20th Century saw hundreds of millions killed by their own governments – governments installed and financed by the scumbags. Eugenics neither started – nor ended – with Hitler.
This isn’t speculation; the scumbags are proud of their work and freely confess their crimes in books, papers and speeches, many of which I’ve linked to in the “required reading” section of my activist website, whatwokeyouup.com. Besides, their code of “revelation of method” requires them to tell us what they’re going to do to us before they do it.
They have declared war on humanity and most of us are oblivious. Fertility has plummeted; sterilants have been added to our food, air, water and vaccines. It’s no coincidence that BPA, PCBs, phthalates, dioxin, and commercial detergents are all powerful synthetic estrogens. GMO corn sterilizes mammals and all vaccine inserts admit the shots can sterilize you and/or kill your unborn child (section 8.1, if you’re wondering), our skies are sprayed almost daily with a toxic soup of nano-particulate aluminum, barium (which sterilizes mammals), strontium, polymers, organic matter and lord knows what else. The RF put out by cellphones, wifi routers, smart meters and the upcoming smart grid has been designated by the WHO as a class 2b carcinogen and – surprise, surprise – it also damages male fertility. Is it any wonder cancer is off the charts and our immune systems are trashed?
But now they’re stepping up their game, deliberately imploding the global economy, starting undeclared wars on a seemingly weekly basis, ushering in a militarized police state and a total surveillance control grid. Once they gain full control (only a few holdout nations remain, plus that pesky U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights), we will see the emergence of a dystopic world government, a scientific dictatorship of, by and for the scumbags. It will not be pretty, especially since they openly seek a 90% reduction in our population, as outlined in the UN’s anti-human Agenda 21, John P Holdren’s “Ecoscience,” and countless other white papers, policy documents, speeches and books. They even carved it in granite at the Georgia Guidestones.
When fire breaks out in the basement of your apartment building, what else can you do but start pounding on people’s doors? That’s all I’m doing. I’ve worked with We Are Change to confront David de Rothschild, bullhorn naked body scanner manufacturer Rapiscan and educate people about the fraud of Climategate. If you found a truth-ey DVD on your car windshield in San Francisco, Berkeley or Novato, I probably put it there.
The most impact I’ve had was as campaign manager for John Fitzgerald, who ran for U.S. Congress in 2010 and 2012. He’s fully awake and none of the scumbag’s agenda was off limits, from false flag terrorism to government drug running, vaccines to private central banks – and we sent it into the mailboxes of 300,000+ voters in ContraCostaCounty. We also handed out 50,000 hard hitting fliers at BART stations, confronted the geoengineers and reached Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike. You can see the work we did at John Fitzgerald for Congress.
On a day-to-day basis, I’ll never pass up the opportunity to spread a little truth, whether it’s pointing out the persistent contrails on a heavy spray day, showing pregnant women section 8.1 of the vaccine insert or explaining the dangers of GMO food and aspartame to people in supermarket check out lanes. Just enough to pique their curiosity – hopefully they’ll investigate further when they get home. It’s not hard, and rather fun to do. And although there’s an endless amount of research to cover, it’s more fascinating than any soap opera or sports team.
And as long as the scumbags and their minions keep conspiring against our best interests, I’ll keep calling them on it. With love.
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