My Brother Larry: A Photo Essay
April 28, 2018 By Stewart Harvey
Baby Larry, 1947
Some of the language below comes from Stewart Harvey’s recent book, “Playa Fire: Spirit and Soul at Burning Man,” published in 2017 by HarperOne.
Larry and I were adopted at the same time. This picture was probably taken the day they brought him home from the hospital. I’d been living with our adoptive parents “Shorty” and Katherine Harvey in a semi-rural area outside of Portland, Oregon from age two, but there were issues in finding my mother. My official adoption procedure was delayed and finally took place at the same time as my infant brother’s.
Adoption wasn’t an issue for either of us, and even though we didn’t share DNA, we two brothers couldn’t have been more close. From the beginning, we had been told that we were adopted, but periodically one of the neighborhood kids would delight in revealing “our secret.” It didn’t bother us because we already knew, and more importantly we’d been told that it made us special.
“Other people have to take what God gives them,” our mother would say, “We picked you out!”
I always imagined a large room filled floor to ceiling with shelves. Each shelf would be packed with row after row of available babies. The prospective adoptive parents would walk along the rows and finally call out, “We’ll take that little one up there!”
We lived at the end of Holman Street in an unincorporated area called Parkrose. Most of the families had two or five acre parcels of land and grew vegetables, berries, or had a cow or two. We grew tomatoes and berries that we sold at the local market. We also had chickens. At the end of Holman was a large pasture the abutted Mays Lake. We played ball and swam in that lake nearly every day in the summertime.
The entire area was part of the Columbia River flood plain, and even though a dike kept the river at bay most years, the soil was rich from centuries of annual flooding. You could grow anything in that sandy soil so, naturally, Portland decided it was the perfect place for its international airport. These days the farms are long gone, and our childhood home is the site of a Candlewood Inn. Snow is somewhat rare in Portland, but I remember it snowed more when we were kids. I can’t look at this picture without seeing it as a foreshadowing of Larry’s desire to build and burn a human figure. Of course that’s just hindsight and a nostalgic notion at best, though he does seem inordinately proud of his creation.
By 1968 Larry had transformed into a hipster dandy. He and his new girlfriend, Janet Lohr, had met at Portland State University, and true to the wanderlust of the era spent summers traveling around the country looking for new places to stay. “Preferably for free,” she confided to me years later. At some point they moved to San Francisco, and though they parted in the early 80s, they remained steadfast friends.
There was a high-principled core to my brother, much of it instilled by our parents. Dad governed his life by a set of simple “cowboy” principles. “A man’s word is his bond,” and “Deeds speak louder than words,” “Shorty” Harvey would say. Larry was strongly influenced by our father, and he tried to craft the “Ten Principles” with the same straightforward and practical eloquence. It’s a tribute to my brother that most of his close friends have been longtime friends.
Larry loved his nephew, Bryan, from the moment he was born. A proto-hippie, Larry visited San Francisco for the first time during the “Summer of Love” in 1967, and though he returned to Portland for school and Bryan’s birth in 1968, he’d been smitten by the San Francisco lifestyle, and it was only a matter of time before he moved there permanently.
Very few people have “greatness thrust upon them.” Most people who achieve great things are born with the desire to do so burning deep within. My brother was no exception. He had found the confines of our rural neighborhood stifling, and by the time he and Jan began their summer ramblings, he began a serious search for something to give his life purpose. I remember they spent most of one year in a small cabin near the town of Corbett, high above the vast Columbia River Gorge. I would visit them, and Larry and I would take vigorous hikes along the gorge trails. I had begun to work seriously in photography, and these hikes were an opportunity improve my skills, but Larry hiked those trails with an unresolved purpose. He was looking diligently for something elusive and hidden towards which to apply himself.
From childhood, my brother had sought some form of unique expression. He was talented and enormously well-read, but he lacked the facility for most of the traditional forms. He couldn’t really sing or play an instrument, and drawing and painting were only limited skills. He could write of course, but his was a slow and painstaking process, not given to great volumes. Mostly, he could talk! As all of his friends can attest, once on a roll, Larry could hold forth for hours on a broad and often-times obscure series of topics. There wasn’t much he wasn’t interested in or knowledgeable about. It’s so easy to look back and see that Burning Man was his ideal match, for it relied on a dramatic plunge into unknown territory, and then to visualize the long term possibilities of that great unknown. Seeing possibilities was his great gift, and then possessing the eloquence to persuade others to come join in and make it all happen.
Tristan was my brother’s first great commitment. Fatherhood may not have come naturally to him, but the desire to succeed as a father figure ran deep within Larry. The first time I saw the Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert in 1990, Dan Miller and Tristan were high atop his shoulders getting a bird’s eye view over the playa. I think my brother idealized fatherhood. He didn’t really get along well with our father, but in many ways he saw Dad as standing up for principle in a world that increasingly rationalized the rejection of principle as outmoded and unhip. Dad didn’t understand the rebellion that was happening everywhere in the late ’60s, and he worried that Larry would be lost to drugs and the politics of turmoil. “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” the youth of that era shouted, but of course there was a clock ticking on that notion. “Shorty” Harvey, who was a carpenter, died in 1974 and would never see any of my brother’s accomplishments.
“What do you think Dad would have thought about Burning Man?” Larry once asked me. “He probably wouldn’t have understood most of it,” I replied, “but he would have been proud that you created something so grand out of wood.”
Larry and Jerry James, 1989
By the time Bryan and I arrived for our first Baker Beach Solstice Burn, it was 1989. It was to be the fourth, and as it turned out final burning that occurred in San Francisco. This version of the Man was their biggest and heaviest. So heavy that it needed to be built in pieces in Jan Lohr’s garage and trucked to the beach on seven different pickups. This heavy hulk snapped the rope during the rising, and the whole thing came crashing down. On the second attempt one of the legs snapped, and the “gimpy man” had to be propped up for the burn. After their broken wooden figure was set afire by Flamo Le Grande, the most amazing thing happened. What should have been a fiery fiasco transformed before our eye into a moving spectacle, and we returned to Portland feeling like we had witnessed a hippy miracle.
The following year on Labor Day Weekend, we joined Larry and a group of mostly Cacophony Society members on the Black Rock Desert. It was a homespun and utterly wonderful experience. Dan Miller, who had headed up the build crew, guided the raising of the Man, and drummer Dean Gustafson called us all to assemble under a beautiful full moon for the first Black Rock Burn.
There were only about 100 hardy souls that first year, and I think Larry wasn’t quite sure what exactly he’d gotten a hold of, but by the following year it was clear something special was happening on the playa.
When my brother first laid eyes on the playa in 1990, it fired up his imagination. There is something about this ancient and vast landscape that tempts us to dream large, and my brother understood that from the first year he was out there. Here at last was a canvas large enough and blank enough to accommodate his most outrageous imaginings, and by the following year, my brother could relax and allow himself to enjoy the magic.
Larry was notoriously camera shy. New teeth in recent years helped that a bit, but in 1991 as he was about to snip the cable that let the Man fall, he let his pleasure show.
By 1999, the spectacle of Burning Man was already becoming known world wide. The next ten years would solidify virtually all of the parts to the pageant. More importantly the nucleus of the organization was beginning to define itself. All of the founders who would create the modern event were now securely in place: Larry and Michael Mikel, who had been there from 1990, were joined by Will Roger Peterson, Crimson Rose, Harley Dubois, and Marian Goodell.
Larry seems to have had a knack for choosing girlfriends that contribute to the success of Burning Man—none more so than Marian Goodell.
Burning Man is built on an individual’s creative whimsey inspiring community cooperation and support. Nothing works without both ingredients. This parody “Harveywood” sign was totally unsanctioned and disappeared after a day, but it said everything about why Burning Man “art” is capturing the world’s attention.
These three amigos represent the yin and yang of my brother’s friendships. Andrew “Haggis” Johnstone (center) is one of the relentless builders of the Man, which seems to get more ambitious and complex each year, and Flash Hopkins (right) has the distinction of being Larry’s oldest San Francisco friend, and these two have shared dozens of told and (mercifully) untold escapades together.
A few years ago Larry stopped wearing his iconic Stetson hat. I think it was a signal that he was finally finished with building a public image. Despite his personal fame as the creator of Burning Man, my brother was essentially a private person, he always had a certain level of reluctance to being in the public eye. It had been necessary to building the event into a worldwide attraction, but in recent years at the event, he became less and less visible.
As we’ve grown older, family has been at the core of most of our discussions. Larry loved Tristan and my son Bryan to distraction, as well as Zan and Dante, Larry’s step children. I’ve always felt that to Larry, Burning Man was at heart a huge extended family, with its worldwide community a reflection of the core values we were given by our adopted parents, “Shorty” and Katherine Harvey.
In the last few years, things seem to be coming full circle. Jan, who had stopped coming to Burning Man several years ago, has made a return, and it was wonderful to see that these two oldest of friends were still a part of one another’s lives.
So what has my brother wrought? These days when we go out to witness the Burning of the Man, I often wonder how he felt in recent years about this noisy and grandiose spectacle. He was proud of course, especially of the progression of international, Regional Burns that reflect his famous Ten Principles, but I rarely saw an expression of what appears to be satisfaction. In many ways it was the same expression that was on his face when I photographed him as he was staring at the vast Columbia River back in the ’70s. It seems to me to be mixture of curiosity and expectation, as if there’s something more just beyond the flames for him to discover and to bring home to show us all.
When I look back at the seventy year span of Larry photographs, I’m stunned by the circular journey it charts. When he was small, my brother possessed the warmest and most confident of smiles. It’s as if he was blessed by the utter conviction deep inside that he could do anything. But along the way to adulthood that confidence was tested, and the ordeal of trying to excel in life ate at his joy. I wanted to include this casual portrait by my friend and fellow photographer, Geoff Silver, because it’s such a clearly unguarded and glowing moment for both of us. After years of struggling to fashion Burning Man into something that spoke eloquently of both art and community, Larry, it seems, finally began to relax and trust the excellent team that had been drawn to him and the promise of the event’s future. For me there is no greater testament to my brother’s accomplishments than that in his later years he was able to draw family and friendships closer, and allow a joyful and unselfconscious warmth to once again define his smile.