Mike Garlington’s “Photo Chapel”


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.

Garlington was in nearly constant motion as the build continued
Garlington was in nearly constant motion as the build continued

“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.

Coyote has a prominent space with other DPW workers
Coyote has a prominent space with other DPW workers

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.

Garlington and his parents
Garlington and his parents
As his grandmother lay dying
As his grandmother lay dying

IMG_8433 IMG_8427

The crew relaxes at the end of a long day
The crew relaxes at the end of a long day
A picture of Joe Jello waits to be installed on the chapel
A picture of Joe Jello waits to be installed on the chapel




The chapel doors are reminiscent of the detail work on the "Ego" project last year
The chapel doors are reminiscent of the detail work on the “Ego” project last year
The Fishmonger's Daughter
The Fishmonger’s Daughter

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

10 Comments on “Mike Garlington’s “Photo Chapel”

  • notallbad says:

    You had me at blood-red sky at Burning Man.

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  • notallbad says:

    Yet this is so gorgeous.

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  • Kristina Carroll (Mama Jello) says:

    What a huge talent and thoughtful, insightful human being Mike is. Thank you, thank you, thank you! And thank you for this well chronicled article. It’s not as good as being there, but wonderful for those of us who cannot be there in person! Congratulations, Mike! Great work – again!
    Mama Jello

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  • Beautiful work and many thanks to the artist. This reminds me a little of the Whoreacle (whore/oracle) piece some of us sex workers did in Tucson in the early 2000’s as part of the Sex Workers Arts Festival there. We had a confessional installation all week long leading up to the weekend of the festival, where people (anyone) could write down secrets on vintage stockings, all of which were used in a performance art bondage/poetry piece on the big performance night. But here we have beauty and destruction, creation and death, photos and fire. Some of the women who created our piece are on the playa this week, and I know they’ve found this and are in love.

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  • Dusty Diva says:

    Plowing along the playa at sunset, I stumbled onto the Photo Chapel… Looked up and saw The Fishmonger’s daughter! My favorite photograph ever! I bought a book of Mike Garlington’s photos from Gallery 291 in San Francisco and fell in love with this work… And there it is …. ON THE PLAYA!!!!! I spent the setting sun hours just absorbing every detail…The Man is speaking with a whole new voice this year… So grateful to you, Mike Garlington… For making this work and burning it into our consciousness…. Thank you thank you….

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  • Golden says:

    The rumor mill had an interesting take on the photos of Mike between his parents–I heard several people say in the chapel that this was Larry Harvey and the woman he made initial “effigy” for, and their love child…glad to have it clarified :)

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  • Neon says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful, evocative art. It was my favorite installation. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of your photography and whatever else you choose to create.

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  • What a great piece! Both the Chapel and the writing. Thanks John.

    I took a few photos. One that made the cut is here:

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  • Jamie Newman says:

    Best work on the playa!

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  • Crispy Duck says:

    Hi Mike,
    I hope you check in here from time to time. This piece moved me so much. I went back several times and was really shaken to know that it would burn. I have never felt that way about any other piece. I wanted the world outside BRC to see this piece. The Museum of Modern Art should have hosted it. You are gifted. Thank you so much for the Chapel.

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