Photographer Eleanor Preger may be self-taught, but her images are breathtaking. She’s lauded for her skill with capturing the inner spirit of her subjects and the vast beauty of the Burning Man Playa. Her latest exhibition, Art on Fire, is now on view at Sierra Arts.
Your Burning Man photography exhibition will be held at Sierra Arts Gallery from Aug. 1-Sept. 7, with a reception on Friday, Aug. 4. How and why did this come about?
I was introduced to Burning Man in 2011. The Nevada Museum of Art wanted to hold an exhibit with the LED artist Leo Villareal, but Director David Walker could not get any support. So he asked my husband and I for sponsorship. He said he’d take me and my friend to Burning Man. I asked him, “Why would I want to go to Burning Man?” And he said, “You like to take pictures, don’t you?” I was an amateur photographer then. So I went to Burning Man for one day from 7 am to midnight and got hooked. I started taking workshops for landscape and portrait photography. The following year I brought my camera and became a Burning Man advocate.
Burning Man later contacted you saying they really liked some of your photos, and could you send them copies. So that’s when you became part of their volunteer Media Mecca Documentary Team?
The Documentary Team is a group of volunteer photographers and videographers that document life in Black Rock City. There are now about 80,000 ‘Burners’ (attendees) every year. We try to capture the radical inclusion and the diversity of the Burner camps. We also try to photograph the Burning Man staff and the city infrastructure, along with the art and pop-up experiences.
The Playa can be a rough environment to photograph. How do you document that?
There are the not-so-glamourous realities of life in Burning Man — dust storms, dusted people, wind damage, damaged camps. So there’s good and bad. We just try to bring the whole culture to the public.
You spend 10 days shooting on the Playa. It must be challenging, physically and mentally.
You know what, I was a really shy person until I had a camera in front of me. For some reason the camera made me open up and approach people. Burning Man opened me up to a new way of life. It flipped a switch in me. When I went there I realized I could just take in the moment and appreciate it. My husband felt the same way. But being a photographer can be lonely at times. I’m the one who’s always behind. I let the crowd go ahead. Then take my pictures, and try to catch up with everybody.
You’ve now garnered a wide and impressive range of photography work. Can you give some examples?
No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one example. It was held from 2018-2019. They used my “Truth is Beauty” photo to promote it all over the world. Also, my photo of the Monaco Art Car was auctioned off at Sotheby’s.
You’ve helped curate a number of shows at the Sierra Arts Gallery.
It started with a solo Burning Man show I helped curate in 2019. After this I was included in the August Burning Man shows with other photographers in 2021 and 2022. I now help curate the Burning Man show Sierra Arts Gallery has in August with gallery curator Maria Partridge. My husband and I are supporters of the Sierra Arts Gallery, as they truly support artists and the art community in so many ways.
You’ve invited photographers Scott London and Marc Sheff to participate in your upcoming Sierra Arts Gallery exhibition.
Curator Maria Partridge invited Marc Scheff to exhibit his interesting black and white Burning Man portraits. And I love Scott London’s work. He’s become my mentor and teacher. He and co-author Jennifer Raiser will be doing a talk and book signing at the artist reception. Scott is also a member of the Burning Man Documentary Team along with me.
Could you share some of the photography techniques you use?
I often use long exposure on a tripod. For instance, a sunrise with elogated clouds using an exposure of 30 seconds. I’ve also been doing infrared photography. It looks black and white, but sometimes there’s blue and pink hues in it. I also try to take the same picture of a night scene and a day scene, and then combine them. There are beautiful sunrises and sunsets at Burning Man.
I read that you like to use props.
I like umbrellas, and use lighted props, ribbons, and smoke. I also do fast exposures of people jumping and dancing or twirling with their hair in midair. It’s how you get those kinds of shots.
When speaking about your photography, I learned that you’re most proud of the moments you’ve captured the “spirit of a friend.”
Many people have shared with me that I capture their inner spirit. I make sure to get permission from everyone I photograph. Sometimes I’ll help them fix their hair or straighten their shirt. Something like that. So they feel relaxed with me, and it comes through.
Do you have a particular type of person you like to photograph?
There are people I do repeat shoots with every year. And I try to shoot people of all ages. And actually most of my pictures, as you’ll see, aren’t young people, and aren’t Instagram poses.
You live part-time in Nevada at Incline Village in Lake Tahoe, and part-time in Sausalito,
Marin County, California. You seem very active. How do you balance it all?
I love my house in Sausalito and have family down there. I have five grandkids. But, Tahoe is our home. It’s a small community of about 8,000 people. A lot of retired young people that were in high-tech. And a lot of non-profit activities. Yes, we are busy, but I think that’s what keeps us young.
Art on Fire: An Exhibition of Photography by Scott London and Eleanor Preger, along with Marc Scheff’s black and white Burning Man portraits, are on on view at Sierra Arts Gallery in downtown Reno through Sept. 7 with a reception on Aug. 4 from 5-8 pm and a talk and book signing with Scott London and Jennifer Raiser at 6:30 pm.
Photos courtesy Eleanor Preger