Behind the Camera Lens of Burning Man Photographer Peikwen Cheng
Photographer Peikwen Cheng offers us a glimpse into a dream world of creativity and imagination-defying art creations. The subject of his unearthly black and white photographs is Burning Man. The week long festival held in the hostile Nevada dessert is a celebration of creativity and radical self-expression. Burning Man welcomes all, but documentation of the event is closely guarded–Peikwen Cheng is one of the few Burning Man Creatives with permission to take photographs. Images from his ongoing series entitled Lost and Found was featured on the pages of Vogue Paris and the Magda Dansyz Gallery in Paris. The documentary series spans from 2000 to 2013 and reveals to us the hallucinating wonder of Burning Man. Peikwen bridges the gap between the Playa and the outside world and shares with us a small piece of this desert dreamland through the beauty of his photographs: Fields of metal flowers, a cowboy riding a giant rocking horse, a massive head half-submerged into the sand, burners on bicycles riding off into the all-consuming dust, and a minimalist photograph of a an empty booth inscribed with “The Oracle” behind which the endless vista of the desert stretches out into infinite white. Burning Man is the Never Never Land of the creative world. Time stops on the Playa. Anything can happen and anything is possible. Peikwen’s photographs ensure that the art and experience of Burning Man does not disappear into memory along with the ashes of the burned creations. He is the lock keeper to this Playa Never Land; a Peter Pan of sorts who renders the art of the Playa timeless.
“Lost and Found” is about dreams. It traces a journey to a distant place where people are free to realize their dreams.
While his Burning Man photographs may be his most recognized work, Peikwen’s other endeavors are no less noteworthy. His series Gai shot in Beijing, shows us the unexpectantly beautiful underbelly of the China’s industrial race. Peikwen turns cranes and construction sites into perspective twisting geometrics sculptures and juxtaposes natural and artificial lighting to create a striking compositions. In a stark contrast with the fantasy of Burning Man, his series Through the Eyes of the 22, offers a social commentary on city life captured along the route of the 22 Fillmore bus line. Using chromogenic color print as his medium, his series Less than Zero, is comprised of close-up images of ice formations taken near the Arctic Circle in Sweden. The patterns, textures and light reveal nature’s great artistry through the intuitive eye of a photographer.
While not traversing the dusty Playa with his camera in tow, Peikwen’s default-life is that of a Creative Entrepreneur. The Chinese-American artist earned a degree in product design from Stanford University, after which he went on to study business at INSEAD. His resume of exhibition and award accomplishments is impressive not to mention intimidating. Peikwen has won numerous International Photography Awards for Best in show and his photographs have been exhibited around the world from the International Photography Festival in Singapore and Paris Photo to the Griffin Museum of Photography in the United States and Photo Shanghai in China.
Photographer Peikwen Cheng has an incredible eye. He sees beauty and possibility where others pay no notice. He is able to photograph smallest of nature’s patterns hidden in ice to grand industrial perspectives and landscapes. Even from afar, his photographs of people reveal a telling intimacy. With his camera lens as his third eye, Peikwen Cheng is gifted with the ability to capture that exact moment where imagination and reality collide.
“I use photography as a way to share ideas, questions and thoughts. I generally believe that fact is stranger than fiction and I love discovering magical, surreal moments in daily life. In particular, I am curious about the process of change. My work often explores in-between states – people, places or nature in transition.” Peikwen Cheng
ABOUT PEIKWEN CHENG
CM: Who are you?
Peikwen Cheng 郑培堃 – a guy who loves creating and sharing experiences.
CM: Where do you live and why? does it inspire your work?
My work is definitely tied to my experiences – from where I live, to whom I interact with. I am a curious person and bit nomadic. I’ve lived and worked in four countries on three continents. Traveling and spending time with people helps broaden my perspective and ways of seeing the world. I spent the last seven years in Beijing, China and recently moved my base to New York. I’m excited to see what this next chapter brings.
CM: When and how did your interest for photography start?
I’ve always been a very visual person. I remember a family friend giving me a subscription to National Geographic for my birthday. Each issue was a filled with fascinating adventures –stunning photography, rich stories, and deep knowledge. It made me want to learn more about the world.
CM: Did you study photography? where? if not how did you learn it?
Serendipitously my first job was in a genetics laboratory at Yale University where the lab asked me to develop and print photographs of chromosomes. I had never been in a darkroom before, or for that matter taken many photographs. Spending two summers immersed in the magic of the darkroom inspired me to learn more.
However, I never rigorously studied photography. I studied Product Design at Stanford University, which helped tune my observational and communication skills. Photography was one tool to record and communicate ideas. I only took one course in photography. The rest has been self-taught – learning by seeing and doing. I photograph every day, visit galleries often, and seek feedback from others. I’ve learned a lot through honest constructive critiques from peers in the art and photography community.
CM: Your first camera?
One that I borrowed from my parents.
CM: Have you ever been a photographer’s assistant? if so, was it a necessary and rich experience?
CM: What are your favourite equipment/cameras?
I love cameras in general, but don’t have any favorites. I view them as tools – using the appropriate one for each situation. I keep my process simple and mainly use a camera, tripod and cable release.
CM: Are your photographs digital or film? which do you prefer?
With the advancement of technology, digital has become very compelling and I have photographed primarily in digital in recent years. However, many of my series are photographed over several years, so they may include images that are analog as well as digital.
In the series Lost and Found, shot over 13 years, I photographed in black and white using 35mm film (2000-2006) and digital cameras (2009-present). I photographed in black and white because I love the ephemeral feeling that black and white evokes with the dusty desert and filtered light.
I often get asked if these images are collages. They are not. They are shot traditionally and adjusted with only necessary processing applied in the digital darkroom.
“My work is definitely tied to my experiences – from where I live, to whom I interact with. I am a curious person and bit nomadic.” Peikwen Cheng
CM: Where does you inspiration come from? (‘Less than Zero’ serie look like beautiful paintings, “Lostand Found” is so graphic and poetic..)
I use photography as a way to share ideas, questions and thoughts. I generally believe that fact is stranger than fiction and I love discovering magical, surreal moments in daily life. In particular, I am curious about the process of change. My work often explores in-between states – people, places or nature in transition.
CM: Do you ever record your inspirations? how? (i.e. sketch books, collages, mood boards, polaroids…)
I pretty always have a camera with me. It’s a visual sketchbook – capturing inspirations I find along the way. I also have a folder on my computer called “Inspirations” which brings together these wide-ranging thoughts. I can then look across my past “sketches” and this allows me to further develop my ideas.
CM: Do you have an agent?
I am happy to collaborate with Galerie Magda Danysz in Paris and Shanghai and In Focus Galerie in Cologne. I’ve been a fan of their galleries and their artists and its an honor to be working with them. I hope to find more partnerships like these in the future.
CM: How easy is it to work on clients commissions? does it hinder your creativity?
In general, I love to collaborate. It’s always a new and fresh experience.
CM: Your proudest project to-date and why?
I think each project has its own meaning to me. So it’s hard for me to define which is my proudest. I will say that the “Lost and Found” series is an important one for me.
“Lost and Found” is about dreams. It traces a journey to a distant place where people are free to realize their dreams. As adults, we often feel that we can’t do this or can’t do that. We might feel bound by the restraints of the “real world”; however as children, we feel boundless. We are only limited by our imagination. After returning from my virgin trip to Burning Man in 2000, I reflected on the questions “what are my own dreams? What am I passionate about? Where do I want to channel my energy?” I realized that photography was important channel for me to express ideas and that I wanted to invest more time and energy into it. This revelation inspired me to apply for a grant from the San Francisco Arts Foundation, which then gave me the resources and confidence to create my first photographic series “Through the Eyes of the 22”.
CM: Your biggest challenge to date?
Balancing priorities. Continuing to foster my passion and build a career one step at a time. The good thing is that when you love what you’re doing, it’s not work. You are just compelled to do it.
CM: Do you have a signature style?
I don’t see myself as having a defined style, however there are common themes that may resonate in my images. I’m often looking for the surreal and magical in everyday life – things that we may overlook if we aren’t paying attention.
CM: With so many awards at such a young age, you managed to make a big name of your talent rapidly. What is your next big ambition?
It’s been an honor to get recognition from the community. It inspires me to continue to work harder. As an artist, you want to create a dialogue with the viewer – to inspire a thought, a conversation. I hope to continue to create art that gets people to question and reflect.
I have three new series in progress – each approaching an issue from a multi-cultural perspective.
Themes include big brother / surveillance, nature / urbanization, and life / death.
Exhibitions: when is your next exhibition and what it the theme of your next exhibition?
I have three exhibitions this fall – showing new work and old.
In early September, I’ll be exhibiting with MD Gallery, at the inaugural Photo Shanghai art fair.
In mid-September, I’ll be showing new work in New York at the Stanford University – Arts and Entertainment Alumni Showcase.
And in early November, I’ll be opening a show in Cologne at In Focus Galerie.
CM: What tip would you give a young photographer keen to make a living of his work?
Follow your passion / your vision, work hard and have patience, learn from others, and nurture strong relationships.
CM: What ‘s next for you?
Continue building – one step at a time.
Photography © Copyright: Peikwen Cheng ( Lost And Found – Less Than Zero ). All rights reserved 2014.