Artist Interview with Photographer Scott London
Saturday, March 2nd, 2013
How do you take a wild and outrageously beautiful experience and translate that to a two-dimensional image? Scott London has done just that in his photographs of the incandescent saturnalia known as Burning Man.
Scott’s images of the Salton Sea are a kind of momento mori; a pictorial caution taken from the Stygian shore. The photographs are disturbingly serene and beautiful, but Scott’s message is the focal point.
He may be on the other side of the camera, but Scott’s generous and gentle spirit is evident in his images. His photographs have been published in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ, Elle Décor, Marie Claire, Outside, Sierra and National Geographic Traveler. Scott’s fine art prints have been exhibited in galleries around the world.
The California-based journalist was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. Scott is a long-time associate of the Kettering Foundation. He has devoted much of his time consulting with organizations focused on social innovation.
Sometimes a thousand words are needed to encourage dialogue. Scott has contributed insightful articles and essays to periodicals and books, focusing on democracy and social issues.
The former host of National Public Radio’s “Insight and Outlook” has interviewed some of the brilliant minds of our time. He is someone who doesn’t just ask questions, he builds bridges with people.
The Ignite.me team had the opportunity to interview Scott to learn more about his creative process, his vision and the philosophy that drives his innovative spirit.
You started this interview by asking me about my life and encouraging a conversation. In The Power of Dialogue, you wrote, “The trouble with much of what passes for communication today is that it’s all crosstalk. It’s a din, not a dialogue.”
Management consultants are recommending courses in “active listening”. Listening has become a skill set. As a journalist and interviewer, you know how to listen, but it’s obvious you value that connection with people. Is this something that can be taught? Is our inability to communicate a cultural flaw?
Scott: Funny you should say that, because a lot of journalists and interviewers are actually quite bad listeners. TV interviewers are notorious for asking a question and then studying their notes instead of listening for the answer. Celebrity interviewers are the worst. They view conversation as a kind of performance. It has to be entertaining to have value.
But you raise a good point about our inability to communicate with each other. Real dialogue is rare in the media these days.
I don’t see listening as a skill, something that has to be learned. Every one of us is capable of listening to another person. Every one of us is capable of recognizing the truth when we hear it. All it takes to have a meaningful conversation is for two people to share their truth, whatever it happens to be.
Anyone can take a picture with a digital camera, but not everyone can make images as stunning as yours. I read that you took your first Burning Man photographs with a three-megapixel point-and-shoot. You’ve been able to obtain photographs under extraordinary circumstances and use the light conditions and the elements to enhance your photographs. Did you study photography or are you self-taught?
Scott: I picked up photography in my teens and went on to study it in college. I was quite passionate about it at the time. But then I abandoned the camera in favor of other things, like DJ-ing and doing radio. I rediscovered photography years later, just as the transition from film to digital was beginning.
I think you prove to many traditionalists that digital images are as beautiful as film.
Scott: In some ways, I think digital photography is still in its infancy. Today’s digital cameras remind me a bit of those early synthesizers and drum machines people were using in the 1980s. They were crude compared to the digital tools musicians are using today. And they didn’t sound as good as we liked to think back then.
How did you make the transition from film to digital?
Scott: Like many people, I became infatuated with Photoshop in the early days. I thought it was so amazing that you could process an image using a computer. You could fix, change and rearrange the elements of a composition. I would tinker with the contrast and color balance of my images without realizing how bad the final results were. Today I look at some of my images from that period and just cringe. But it was a learning phase I think many of us had to go through.
I still process my photos, but I have a much lighter touch these days. I try to get it right in camera and do as little post-processing as possible. I’ve found that as my technique has improved I’ve become much less dependent on Photoshop. I’ve also found that I enjoy being out in the field more than I like sitting in front of the computer, so that has helped me grow as a photographer.
I was watching an interview with Burning Man artist, Laura Kimpton where she said, “Neuroses lie in words, not in visual images.” I can sort of see her point.
Scott: That’s an interesting point. Laura Kimpton is a wonderful artist. Her installations make creative use of words like “Love” and “Ego.” I agree that images are a more powerful form of communication and as a journalist it’s something I think about a lot. There are some stories that just don’t lend themselves to a 2,000-word feature in a newspaper or magazine.
When I first went to Burning Man, I planned to write about the experience. But I found that it was too visually intoxicating to be summed up in a written piece. No concepts or formulations could properly convey the experience to someone who had never been to the event. And for someone who had, well, words hardly seemed necessary. Photography struck me as a more powerful medium for documenting the experience. The story, if it lived at all, would have to find expression through the pictures.
As a writer and photographer do you find that people respond differently to your photographs than to your written work?
Scott: Yes, no doubt. Images tend to bypass our analytical minds and speak directly to something deep within us. They are very intimate, in a way. They capture the imagination and speak to the heart, but without saying a word.
You’ve captured moments that will never happen again. Your images aren’t just technically perfect, they stand on their own as works of art. Your name is one that always comes up when Burning Man artists talk about photographs of their work.
Your photograph of the woman on the playa with the scarf flowing over her breasts – that image is radiant. I can feel her joy. Your photographs of the Salton Sea bring attention to the environmental devastation, but the images as art are hauntingly beautiful.
Scott: Thank you for the lovely compliment. The photo of Shannon dancing in the dust happens to be a personal favorite of mine. It was taken at Burning Man one evening as the wind was picking up. She was just doing her thing and agreed to let me take a few pictures. I was fortunate to capture the moment.
You’ve interviewed some amazing people during your career, too many to mention – James Hillman, Stephen Mitchell, John Ralston Saul, just to name a few. Who has inspired you?
Scott: There are too many to mention. For five years I hosted a program of interviews on public radio. During that time, I made a point of seeking out some of today’s leading writers and thinkers, scientists and philosophers, educators and wisdom-keepers. I learned that inspiring people are not always very nice, and that nice people are not always inspiring. No surprise there.
But I also learned that some people have a gift for seeing possibility everywhere they look. They bring an openness and optimism to the tough questions facing us now — questions like, how do we understand our moment in history? How did we get here? What can we be wholehearted about? How do we take better care of each other and the planet? How do we overcome the isolating effects of new technologies, like Facebook and Twitter? How can we have better conversations?
In a world where everyone seems to be peddling answers, I’m inspired by people asking really good questions.
Who has surprised you or caused you to look at something in a way that hadn’t occurred to you before?
Scott: One of the most surprising figures I’ve met is Larry Harvey. He started Burning Man on a beach in San Francisco almost 30 years ago. He founded it on the idea of radical self-expression. For many people, that means defying convention, dressing up in a wacky outfit, or doing something bold and daring in public. Burning Man is famous for that.
But after you’ve run around in the desert with nothing on except for bunny ears and a tutu, the thrill wears off. If that’s your definition of originality, it gets old pretty quickly. At that point you have to reach within yourself to find some experience, some capacity, some creative spark that makes you unique. Discovering that, bringing it into the light and sharing it with the world takes courage. That’s a truly radical act. It involves reaching into the core of our being to find out who we are and what we’re made of. That process never gets old.
Larry Harvey helped me to look at myself and what I bring to the world in a new and unexpected way.
What you are working on now?
Scott: I’m juggling several projects at the moment. I’m working on a commissioned piece that tackles the deadlock and dysfunction of American politics. That should be published later this year. I’ve got a book of Burning Man photographs in the works. And I’ve teamed up with two other longtime Burning Man photographers to develop a major exhibition of our work.
“Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.”
Thank you, Scott!
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