Mike Garlington was laboring with his nine-person crew under a sky made blood red from the smoke of surrounding fires this week as he worked to install his “Photo Chapel” in Black Rock City.
“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” he said as he hurried from worker to worker, handing up tools, carrying lumber and talking about the structural integrity of his piece.
Garlington is very much a known quantity on the playa, both as an artist and DPW worker. He’s called Photo Mike, or Photo Miguel, and although he is not working DPW this year, he will stay after the event is over to help clean up the highways that are always littered with trash by departing Burners.
Garlington is upbeat and always in motion. During the year, he’s usually up and dawn and working in the studio. His idea notebook is thick to overflowing, and he’s always looking ahead to what comes next.
Last year, he collaborated with famed playa artist Laura Kimpton on the “Ego” project, and even as he watched flames engulf the work, he was already talking about what he wanted to do this year.
“Photo Chapel” is the apex of many of Garlington’s artistic arcs – meticulous photographic printer, conceptual photographer, inventive framer, and DPW pirate. The chapel is the culmination of 14 years of image-making, with many of the photographs created during his annual two months in the desert, working alongside the vivid personalities in the DPW as they set up and take down Burning Man.
One of the trucks that the Fluffers use (Fluffers being he women who visit the various work crews to deliver cool drinks, snacks and smiles) is covered with more Garlington photos made in the desert and mounted on the truck’s exterior. The truck never fails to attract onlookers during the event.
His own van is also covered with his work. He used to do a lot of shooting in remote locations, and the beat-up van was his darkroom on wheels. Although his most familiar photographs are shot with a 4×5 camera and Polaroid Type 55 film, being behind a camera did not come easily to Garlington.
“I was a punk rocker, and I didn’t want to do what my parents did,” he said. “I fought it tooth and nail.”
For years, Photo Mike’s parents operated Spindler’s photo lab in the Dogpatch section of San Francisco, where they handled the work of high-end commercial and fine-art photographers. Garlington loved the darkroom work, and he did it for ten years (“No school could teach you what I learned there,” he said). But his rebellious spirit kept him from making images himself.
But that all changed during a trip to New York, where he visited the Guggenheim Museum and saw the work of Joel-Peter Witkin for the first time.
“I left the museum, and I was so charged,” Garlington said. “It changed me.
The influence of Witkin’s work, with its emphasis on death and the grotesque, can be seen in Garlington’s work, and at the Chapel. A woman’s head on the top of a disemboweled shark, an old man and young woman in a seedy hotel room, a woman holding a large dead fish.
But there are also portraits of people Garlington has worked with on the playa, including Coyote hunched over a survey map, D.A., the leader of Playa Restoration, Lexi of the Spires crew, Nips of the Fluffers, and many others. His work is reality based, even if that reality is harsh and strange.
The Chapel is a conceptual advance for the main art on the playa, somewhere between the raw Bacchanalian burning of the Man and the somber remembrance of the Temple. The Chapel is filled with both life and death, strangers and family, the pure and the profane.
Garlington says that although he calls his installation a chapel, he doesn’t want it to be a place of reverie and silence. “I want loud and raucous,” he said. “I want people to rage.”
His work has matured meteorically in the past few years, especially the improvised-looking frames and the detail work that surrounds his photo structures – disembodied hands, black and white flowers, and random pieces of wood crafted into DIY sculpture.
Autobiographical influences are everywhere, from the DPW wing out back, which features prominent photos of Coyote, Larry Harvey, and Joey Jello, a much-beloved DPW worker who was killed in a crash before last year’s burn. (Jello has been well remembered in Black Rock City. There are stickers that say “Never Betray” in backwards letters, replicas of the tattoo Jello had on his neck that reminded him, when he looked in the mirror, to never betray his core beliefs. Other DPW members have also gotten Never Betray tattoos, and the song “Free Bird,” which was played loudly at the burning of the Temple last year, is also associated with Jello: One had to drink three shots and picklebacks and a tall beer in the time it took for the song to play.)
Inside the chapel itself there are pictures of Garlington sandwiched between photos of his mother and father, and a wrenching photograph of his grandfather, who is crouched beside the bed of his dying spouse.
All of the photos are elaborately framed, and individual LEDs will light them at night. There is an effect of stained glass at the top of the steeple, but again, Garlington doesn’t want his chapel to be associated with silence and solemnity.
“I want it to rock,” he said, and then he was off again to move some lumber out of the way of a forklift.