John Brennan Photographer Free Photography Zone

Episode 7 – John Brennan

Welcome back focused audience!

Today’s guest John Brennan. He is a photographer that focuses on the people of Burning Man with his black and white gallery and studio the Free Photography Zone. A photographer for over 30 years and Burning Man photographer for over 18 years. John Brennan is an author of a book of portrait photography, “Brief Encounters On The Playa”. In this world of digital photography we dive back into the world of film and black and white printing.

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Welcome back to Photographer In Focus. Thanks for joining us.
If you’re listening to the show when it’s released we’re smack dab in the holiday season. That means there are lots of people shopping for gifts and giving.

If your a burner, Halcyon’s posts on the Burning Man Blog on gifting I found very thought-provoking. That giving a gift, without expectation, of exchange, is the biggest reward of gifting. It’s an interesting perspective and it can make or break your whole holiday. I urge everyone to check it out.

That leads me into today’s guess commercial photographer John Brennan and his gift of the Free Photography Zone studio and gallery at Burning Man for the past 18 years.

Brennan's Gallery

John Brennan’s Black Rock City Gallery and Studio.

John has photographed hundreds if not thousands of people over the last 18 years out on the desert playa.

The work, includes nudes and is not for everyone. As some photographs can be very sexually charged. If you may be offended by that kind of work don’t go to the show notes page.

This is our second black and white film photographer on our show. Michael Garlington was our first and I enjoyed talking art with Michael as he identifies rightly so, as simply being called an artist. Conversely today’s guest John Brennan would argue he is simply a photographer.

Today we talk to John Brennan and learn what brought him to the desert to set up a studio and gallery out on the playa in the harsh environment of Black Rock City. We also dive into the stories around a couple of images over the years, a very touching thing to hear.


Q. When did you start into commercial photography?

John started his photographic journey in 1975. At the time he sold photography and street fairs, and learned photography by trial and error as he is self taught.

John quit his regular job in 1975 in finance and has never looked back, to pursue photography. With a young family and a morgage John’s wife said go ahead but don’t lose the house.

With a make it or break it attitude and no chance but to win, he said out has photography as a career. John took the risk and dove in completely.

“Always give your enemies a way to escape but not yourself!” -John Brennan

Following his passion and love of photography, John feels like he is playing rather than working.

“I never felt like I’ve gone to work since I’ve started. Retire? What am I going to do?!” -John Brennan

Q. What brought you to Burning Man can you tell that story?

I heard about Burning Man from my assistant. It was a great experience and it was wonderful.

“I felt this is exactly where I should be.”

When John got to the desert he brought a white seamless background and started to do a photo project out on the playa. Inspired by Richard Avedon’s photos of the American West. he wanted to photograph the people of Burning Man on a white background. However, he tried to do it with just daylight and it was too difficult to get the feeling he wanted. He needed to stop the action and only strobes and studio lights could provide that.

“We were woefully unprepared, limited by the slow static nature of available light.”

The studio.

Today John Brennan takes a 26 foot truck to carry all the gear. Once there he builds a 15 x 20′ studio structure, 10 foot tall self-contained studio. All the pictures are shot on white seamless and everybody gets a Polaroid. He photographs using black-and-white film that takes a month to process it after Burning Man which he does by hand in his Bay Area studio.

Q. What was your first impressions of Burning Man and How did you come up with your plans to do a photo project out on the playa?

Trying to photograph with just daylight and feeling limited by the slow static nature of available light John returned the following year and ever sense with all his studio strobe equipment. He didn’t want slow static posed pictures he wanted people doing things. Bringing his home studio to the playa gave him the look that he really wanted.

It takes 12 to 14 people to set up the studio out on the playa, the gallery is in the front and the studio is in the back. The gallery, his Free Photography Zone gallery has been running since 1996.

Q. Can you expand upon the idea for the project?

Everything is shot on white background to have nothing but the people photographed. No extraneous elements to take the viewer away from the people.

“Nothing against all the stuff at Burning Man but I just want to isolate the people from the other visual elements of Burning Man.”

Q. How much do you pose people or do the people create the image?

John says he will pose a shot if the people don’t have a strong idea of what they want, mostly it’s a give-and-take between photographer and subject, it’s an involvement of both parties. Some come with elaborate plans and props.

Black man with the head of an Asian.

John Brennan’s Vision of Josie

(Picture #1. Josie)

John tells the story of an idea he had and the subsequent image that got produced from that idea.

Breast Cancer Survivor

Barbara with Bag by John Brennan

(Picture #2. Barbara and Boyfriend)

A woman nude with her boyfriend and a bag in her hand. Listen to the powerful story!

Arch of back and breast gently kissed.

The Kiss by Photographer John Brennan

(Picture #3. Breast Kiss)

Hey man and the woman in the moment as he is gently kissing her breast.

M2 or Michael Michael

Danger Ranger photograph by John Brennan

(Picture #4. Danger Ranger)

Danger Ranger is the very first Black Rock Ranger who set up the Black Rock Rangers of Burning Man. The Rangers are band of volunteers and fellow burners who help other burners get problems mediated and emergencies called for. Be it medical, emotional or legal.

Q. With 18 years of working on this project you must have a huge library of work?

I do. There is 2500 to 3000 photographs each year with 400 rolls of film and 300 packs of Polaroid waiting to go into coolers to go out there.

Q. It’s a massive amount of time and expense that has gone into your Burning Man work, what do you do with it?

I make prints, I show them, it’s been sometime since I’ve done that. This is going to sound strange but I do it because I have to. I just don’t have a choice. I’m addicted, if you will, to doing this. I’m not doing it for a magazine or anything like that, wish I was, I finance it myself, which allows me to do whatever I want.

John explains that his Burning Man work only has to make himself happy and if he makes other people happy or other people who see the photos happy then it’s an added bonus.

“If I make other people who see the photos happy whether it’s pictures of themselves or other people that’s great, it’s an added bonus but it’s icing on the cake. I do it because I want to and I can.”

Q. Would you call what you do fine art photography?

“Yes I know a lot of people who are artists by whatever definition that refer to themselves as painters not as fine art painters. They refer to themselves as sculptors not as fine art sculptures. They’re happy with the one word title and so am I. I am very happy to be called a photographer.”

If people come out to me at Burning Man while I’m out in front of the studio enjoying our shade structure and ask ‘who is the artist?’ I just keep my mouth shut.”

Occasionally somebody will point out John Brennan has the artists he is quick to say no I’m the photographer you can call me that and that’s fine, I’m happy with that. I am perfectly content being a photographer.

“I don’t grade my work like sandpaper, fine or medium grade or course or anything like that, course maybe! I’ve just never been wild about the term fine art. I think art is art, it doesn’t need an extra adjective. And and maybe primitive art, it may be Modern Art, it may be Renaissance Art, it could be any kind of art but we don’t need to call it something else to make it worthwhile.”

I too buy into that perspective of just calling yourself a photographer and every time I hear it and I have heard it before I buy into it.

Q. What equipment do you use?

I bring a Maymia RB67, 121 mm lens, same film 100 ISO, same developer and I print with the edges so it shows full vision of capture.

Q. So you don’t believe in cropping?

“No, that’s the vision in the camera for better or worse.”

From the Walls 2014 photography by John Brennan

From the Walls 2014 photography by John Brennan

Q. With all that film you have to do a whole lot of post processing?

“Yes that’s the only boring part, developing film is about creative as making ball bearings. You are doing the same thing over and over. Yeah, you are the machine. Yes if I had the money I’d hire somebody to do it. If I can find somebody to put up with that much tedium, I’d give it a try.”

Q. So what’s the workflow like?

I’ll usually process about 50 or 60 rolls then make proof sheets, so I can see what I’ve done. When they’re all done… I do a thing out there so if people jump through hoops they can get a copy of the print that they were in. If they send a copy of the Polaroid they got with basic information. Don’t tell me you did it on Thursday afternoon, it won’t help, I’m sorry it won’t help.

Q. When you shoot, do you shoot a full roll of film? Wouldn’t digital be easier?

Q. Bringing your good equipment to photograph at Burning Man, you have to have it cleaned when you get home?

If you’re going to do something serious he might as well bring out the serious equipment and serious tools. It’s equipment it’s a tool. Tools break but tools are replaceable, the people in the moment and making the photograph that’s not replaceable. If something gives out on me I don’t want to think about it I want to open up the truck get a new piece of gear and keep going. I’ll think about it when I get back.

Q. Do you bring an extra body and lenses and stuff?

Oh yeah, everything, extra power bags, extra heads, extra bodies, backs, Polaroid holders, lenses. I just bring lots of stuff. I’ve never had a complete failure of everything.

Q. What about the dust storms?

Not much you can do it’s going to be dusty. Clean it up as best you can and keep going.

Q. Tell me about your book, “Brief Encounters On Playa”?

Brief Encounters of The Playa

The Playa Authenticated Copy

Well it’s a Blurb book. I bring a copy, a playa authenticated copy that can be browsed through in the desert. It’s about 60 images. It’s a big chore doing a book.

“My daughter is good it bookmaking.”

To make a book you’re sharing your personal vision of the world with an audience. Everything has their own personal vision.

Making digital books is easier with digital cameras. There’s a big difference between traveling with film and digital. Digital photography is a backpackers delight.

Q. What style of photography would you say you do?

Portrait photography. Because I’m photographing people. All I can photograph is the surface just what people show me.

But really I’m photographing for myself. The only person you need to satisfy is yourself.

Q. Do you have any tips for other photographers? Tips on photography?

You’re one day closer to being dead, live life accordingly. You still make a living, anyway you can whether being a photographer or a truck driver who does photography on the side. You do because you have to do it. If I don’t make photographs I going to withdrawal.

Q. What about recognition?

I do it because of its intrinsic rewards versus recognition or other extrinsic rewards.

Q. What about the business side of photography?

The best way to learn photography is by doing it. Find someone who will look at your work who will critique your work, that’s kind and honest. Get a kind and honest critique of your work.

The best way to learn photography is by being in a environment where there are no secrets. Find a photographer to share and show what they do.

With today’s digital photography the craft of photography is cheaper to learn than ever.

Q. Do you have any projects on the horizon?

Yes, I have books to make for myself and for my family, and Burning Man.

Q. Yes, Burning Man! You’ve exhibited there the past 18 years at one of the biggest art events on earth. That’s why I have you on the show! I want to thank you!

The Free Photo Zone has exhibited work of John Brennan for years.

The Free Photo Zone has exhibited work of John Brennan for years.

Where can people find you John?

Blurb Book Page.

For years I’ve watched John’s tireless dedication to his Burning Man portrait project it was great to talk about it.

Thanks for taking your time out to join us for this interview with the photographer in focus audience, I really appreciate it!

I do have an affiliate Amazon link if you use it, it may help the podcast. So far I have nobody who ever clicked these links so I’m not 100% sure.


  1. I enjoyed this podcast a lot. Thanks for making this. I need to listen to the others now!

    • John David Tupper says:

      Thanks Mark,
      I enjoy interviewing the best photographers. Please do. I have some great shows to listen to and more on the way.

  2. Hello! John took some pictures for us at BM 2012 I was wondering if it was still available to view and purchase? Thank you 🙂 I was a guy in with a yellow oriental shade hat with a scarf and antenna coming out of the hat.

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