Photo by Marnee Benson

Desert Songs: The Art of Will Roger

“The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names... Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.”

- Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

About Will Roger

Artist, AUTHOR, Teacher, Innovator + Environmentalist

The desert of North America and beyond is a place of enduring mystery, power, and natural beauty. It is a ruse that this space of earth possesses a kind of blank canvas quality, and man is so often tricked into believing that the desert can be owned, harnessed, conquered, and taken. The winds will show such ambitiousness the truth, through veils of heavy sand –blinding, erasing, wounding, starving, and burying. For its unrelenting power, beauty, and majestic spirit, many artists have come to love, respect, and even fear the desert. This dualistic way of interacting is very much at the core of American artist Will Roger’s photographic practice.

Will is a conservationist, creator, and teacher. Having served as Chairman of Sierra Front, North Western Great Basin Resource Advisory Council, and President of the Friends of the Black Rock-High Rock, he is the sort of forward-looking artist and radical thinker you would want to know. His approach has an openness and fearlessness that we could all learn from. So, after encountering his work, it is no surprise that this man is also a cultural co-founder of Burning Man. In all of his work, Will requires of his audience openness to the power and mystery of the natural world, whether it be from a panoramic aerial perspective of the Black Rock Desert, the multi-faceted and intellectually engaging black-and-white photography, or his deeply sensual studies of flowers. There is a playful fluctuation between object, participant, viewer and voyeur.

Will began in analytical chemistry, working as a photo chemist at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Interested in finding new ways to understand the world, he would go on to earn his MFA in photography and serve as an Associate Professor of photography at RIT, working at the prestigious institute for twenty years. There, he created and taught the course, “In Search of the Mystical Image.” Today, Will is noted for his creative formal or technical approach, notably a distinctive style of stop-motion photography. Moreover, the artist’s work is well respected for a fluency of movement, certain enigmatic lyricism, and a truly esoteric quality that fascinates.

As one develops intellectually and artistically, physical movement is often the impetus for real growth. So, seeking a new space and challenge, in the early 1990s, Will decided to move to California and focus on portraiture. He would eventually become involved in the gathering of risk takers and creativity of Burning Man. The extraordinary freedom would act as catalyst for new and exciting work that seems to exist between two worlds: the surrealist photography of early twentieth century Europe and the Bacchanalian spirit of this world-renowned desert event. As well, the heroic and fantastic allure of the desert would come to be a key motif in the artist’s work, including astonishing aerial photographs.

A Fullness of Form and Emptiness

Will’s signature in-motion style gives the impression of a dancing world of loveliness, both in the erotic dancer studies or in the flower series. From Will’s erotic portraits to his images of underwater ecologies or the grandiose beauty of the desert, one experiences a fullness of form and an emptiness, allowing both balance and intrigue. Will is a creative tour de forcewhose luxuriously beautiful photos intersect with a sense of the analytical; critics say this is a man who makes his subject dance through light, color, and stop-motion photography. Within this movement, there is a certain freedom to the work, a place where bold color, dramatic landscapes, or charged images of sexuality merge with quiet space.. 

A man fulfilled

Will Roger spends his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Black Rock Desert region with his partner and muse, Crimson Rose. He has authored two books, Compass of the Ephemeral: Aerial Photography of Black Rock City through the Lens of Will Roger and In Search of the Common Shaman, which will be released in 2019.

~ Rosa JH Berland