Documenting Burning Man's Construction, Through Wind and Rain

As you enter Black Rock City, the scene is otherworldly, like a refugee camp on the moon. For a moment, all you can see are the ragtag encampments — tents, RVs, and a few modest structures set up on the dried lake bed. But suddenly, the view opens, and the Playa becomes visible — marooned pirate ships, hundred-foot ant farms, fire-breathing art cars and the lit-up Man. It is utterly overwhelming—unfathomable in scale, oddness, and  LED.

But for Toby Silverman, a local photographer who attended his fifth Burn last summer — this time as part of the Temple building crew — the view was quite different.

“We came down that hill and it was just completely empty,” he told SF Weekly. “Center Camp was just a set of poles. The Man was just some legs.”

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Silverman found the volunteer building crew’s website, which offered an open invitation to come to Petaluma every Saturday throughout the summer to help with preliminary work. He did some labor and took some photographs at those North Bay meet-ups, and was invited to come two weeks early to the Burn to document the building of the Temple of Grace, the giant structure used as a memorial for those that died the year before. The final night of the festival, it is burnt in a quiet ceremony that marks the end of the event.

For those two weeks before the event, Silverman worked 12-hour days with a small crew of volunteers, ranging in age from 10 to 70, to realize sculptor David Best’s vision for the structure. Best builds temples made from recycled wood around the world, including eight of the last fifteen Burning Man Temples.

This year’s undertaking was bold. The structure would be 80 feet tall and would sit in the center of a 150-by-150-foot courtyard. And it needed to be completed within a month on a scalding, windswept desert. The build did not go smoothly.

A rainstorm shut down work right before Silverman arrived — the wet dust cakes onto shoes and tires, making construction impossible — but eventually, the Temple crew got back on schedule. Then the winds came.

The group had built slim wooden pillars around the courtyard and were waiting for a machine that would drill holes and place the steel rebar that would reinforce the structure.

“Right then, there was one of the biggest dust storms I’ve ever seen, a complete whiteout, and you could hear pillars crashing down,” Silverman said. “But you couldn’t see anything. When the dust cleared, we saw that all of the work we had done the last four days — these thin, intricate, beautiful pillars — had been knocked over and crushed in the storm.”

Despite the unwelcome arrival of a second rainstorm right as the gates opened, a day into the festival, the Temple was finally complete. As it burned the final night, Silverman sat beside the firefighters, closer than the huge crowd of festival-goers and documented the blaze.

His photographs capture a part of Burning Man rarely considered: the construction and then destruction of an entire city, the third largest in Nevada during the week, on a sun-scorched and dust-blown dried lakebed. It’s an insane feat of urban infrastructure, completed by an insane collection of artists and volunteers.

And at the end, it all burns to the ground.

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