Blogs Robin Lindley Ken Burns Discusses His New Photographic History of AmericaDec 19, 2022
Ken Burns Discusses His New Photographic History of America
tags: photography,Ken Burns
Ken Burns (Cover Photo by Jerome Liebling; Author Photo by Michael Avedon)
I have had the great privilege and opportunity of operating in that special space between the U.S. and “us” for decades—and if I have learned one thing, it is that there is only “us,” no “them.” Ken Burns, Our America
Renowned American visual historian and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s love affair with photography began when he was a toddler, as he describes in his powerful and arresting new book, Our America: A Photographic History (Knopf). As a young child, he watched his father, a professor of cultural anthropology, perform magic in a darkroom by simply dousing blank photographic papers in pans of chemicals and then revealing the slow emergence of stunning images.
The engaging and often moving photographs in Our America are the product of years of Mr. Burns’s extensive research and meticulous selection from tens of thousands of images. The book reflects the same qualities that characterize his award-winning documentaries: painstaking attention to detail and historical accuracy. And still photographs are the building blocks for his films.
The book presents 251 black and white photographs in chronological order that span our history from 1839 (with the first known American selfie) to 2019 (with a striking portrait of civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis). The photos appear one per page and are captioned with only the location shown and the year of the image. At the back of the book, a section of “Illustration Notes” offers information on provenance and the historical context of each photo, often revealing facts that deepen the mystery of our past or heighten the contradictory nature and wonder of our history. The book tracks themes that are familiar to viewers of Burns’s films—from race and conflict and brutality to moments of innovation and genius and justice.
With this powerful collection of images, Mr. Burns captures our democratic spirit and our at times confounding past. He writes of the book: “Here is our authenticity, our sacrifice, our playfulness, our curiosity, and our grief. Here is our beauty, fragility, grandeur, and cool. Here is reflection and perseverance, industry and nature. Our harmony and our dissonance. Our forgetfulness and our memory.”
Our America can be viewed as a visual poem and, as with great poetry, each reading is likely to inspire new insights and revelations. It can be seen as a kaleidoscope of frozen moments in time.
A few of the images may be well known to some readers, but most are rare and often deeply personal. The book includes work by legendary photographers from Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner from the Civil War era to Lewis Hine and Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange in the early 20th century, to more recent photos from the likes of Sally Mann and Keith Dotson and Michael Avedon, but in many cases the photographers are unknown.
The juxtaposition of photos on facing pages is intentional and certain to arouse varying interpretations and musings from readers who read and reread the book. For example: A photograph of the 1861 inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis faces an interior shot of Fort Sumter from the same year. An 1890 portrait of an aging Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota nation is juxtaposed with a photo made in the 1890s of a tourist summer colony in Maine. A 1914 photograph of very young children working at machines in a hosiery mill in North Carolina faces a 1914 portrait of renowned American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in a bucolic setting in New York State. A gripping photograph of the Japanese bombing of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor faces a 1942 photograph of Japanese Americans lined up for state-sponsored relocation and incarceration at American concentration camps.
Our America is an unsanitized journey and a vital document now as forces in the country challenge the dream of equality for all and the very foundations of our democracy. Contrary to those who seek to erase our past and divide our citizenry, Mr. Burns shares in his book a history of “us,” through times of despair and horror and times of healing and triumph, with moments of justice and grace and hope. As he writes, “there is only ‘us.’ No ‘them.”
The images that Mr. Burns chose from “our” past also have a special resonance and timeliness now. In her prologue to the book, Susan Hermanson Meister—Executive Director of the Aperture Foundation and a former photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York—describes Mr. Burns’s book of photographic history as follows: “Our America is an intentionally idiosyncratic, deeply personal collection of photographs that have shaped our understanding of ourselves and our history. It is, too, a powerful monument to our moment.”
Ken Burns has been making acclaimed documentary films for over forty years. Since his Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, he has directed and produced some of the most renowned historical documentaries ever, including, The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History; Jackie Robinson; The Vietnam War; Country Music; Benjamin Franklin; Hemingway; and The U.S. and the Holocaust. His films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 16 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Oscar nominations. And, in September 2008, at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards, Mr. Burns received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Mr. Burns graciously responded by telephone from his New Hampshire studio to questions about his career and his new photographic history of America.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations, Ken, on your heartfelt and deeply researched book of photographic history, Our America. It’s a beautiful book. How did the project evolve and why did you bring out the book now?
Ken Burns: I've been thinking about this book for decades. I've been working on it for 15 years at night and on the weekends—refining it, setting it aside, thinking about it. I finally found a space in the schedule where I thought I could get it done. I worked with three of my colleagues, Susanna Steisel and Brian Lee and David Blistein, to help refine it.
But I always have known that the still photograph is the basic building block of each of the films that I've made—in essence, the DNA of it. And I have been, since I was a little boy, captivated by photography.
I've been trained by still photographers, particularly my mentor Jerome Liebling, who took the picture on the cover of the book. And I've been drawn to using still photographs for the complex information that they convey. And so, even when we've got a film project that might benefit from a lot of motion pictures, like the Holocaust or the Vietnam War or World War II, we still go back to still photographs as that basic building block of communication.
I've dreamt [of this book] ever since I was a college student looking at the photography books of Jerome Liebling—the books that were weighing down and sagging the bookshelves of his office and his home. And, as I was avidly looking through them, I wanted to do a book like that.
And that book would become this history of the United States, beginning with the first self-portrait ever taken in 1839—the same year that Louis Daguerre was pioneering his daguerreotypes in Paris—and moving forward chronologically with black and white only basically to the present. The last 30 years are much more open-ended and impressionistic. That's not the territory of historians.
And the book covers every state and the subject matter of most of the films that I've done. But more important, putting one photograph per page with a minimal caption and letting it speak for itself. There is back matter [“Illustration Notes”] that shows a thumbnail of that photograph and as much information as we have on the photographer, if we have it, and sometimes the story behind the photograph or, more significant, the story of the subject matter of the photograph so that people do have a place to find information on it.
But what we want is for the experience of the still photographs to just wash over you: the unknowingness of it, the beauty of it, the ugliness of it, the poignancy of it, the grief of it, the joy of it, the playfulness of it. Whatever it might be, let that wash over you. And so, you can work your way through the 250 or so photographs and then go back and now have a relationship thumbing back and forth between the photograph and the more full description.
So there will be something like [the caption] “Washington, D.C. 1865,” and it is a gorgeous photograph by Alexander Gardner of Abraham Lincoln. It turns out to be the last photograph ever taken of Lincoln, and so it has its own kind of poignancy. And it's the very best photograph ever taken of Lincoln, everything that he was.
washington, D.C. 1865 (PHOTO CREDIT: Library of Congress)
You can look at the beauty of the photograph for as long as you want, and then you can go back and find out a little bit more about the circumstances under which the photograph was taken and what it means.
And that was the idea—that people would have this relationship to photographs. So we've been working on it for years and years and years, on evenings and on the weekends, whenever we could catch a moment in the midst of quite a lot of film work.
Robin Lindley: The story of your father’s inspiration for your interest in photography is very moving. Can you talk about his influence?
Ken Burns: I’d be happy to. My dad was a cultural anthropologist and in 1955, when I was two years old, we moved into a small development in Newark, Delaware, where he was teaching at the University of Delaware. He was the only anthropologist in the state of Delaware, but he was also, and had been since he was a kid, an avid but amateur still photographer. And so, my very earliest memory is first of him building a dark room in the basement of this tract house in the development at 827 Lehigh Road in Newark, Delaware. And then, one second later in my memory, at two and a half or three years old, being held in his arm as he was developing something in the dark room and the magic of that. That stuck with me for a long time.
And then my mother got sick about that time with cancer and died 10 years later. After she passed away, my dad had a pretty strict curfew for my younger brother and me. But I remember staying up and watching a movie with him, and I watched my dad cry for the first time. He hadn't cried when my mother was sick and he hadn't cried when she died and he hadn't cried at the funeral, and that was something that everybody had noticed. But I realized, for what was bottled up in his too short and also tragic life, that the movies had provided him with a kind of emotional outlet. And so I vowed, just a few months after my mom died, just before I turned 12, to be a filmmaker. I realized that that's what I wanted to be, which at that point meant Hollywood.
And thank goodness I ended up at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, still a very thriving, wonderful experimental college where I met Jerome Liebling and his colleague Elaine Mayes. And they were both still photographers more than they were filmmakers. That’s where I got my interest in documentary filmmaking, but it begins with my dad and that’s why the book is dedicated to Jerome Liebling and my father.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing the moving story of your father. You’ve done a tremendous job on the book, and I'm struck by the power of the photographs you chose. I don't think any political figures are portrayed in the book after the 1968 photo of Robert Kennedy with Cesar Chavez except for the beautiful portrait of civil rights champion, Congressman John Lewis, at the conclusion of the book. I thought there might be a Barack Obama picture in the mix. But they were your choices. Can you talk about the selection process?
Ken Burns: Yes. We never said we wanted to have X number of political figures in it. It was just the photographs that would speak to us and it might in fact be that whole swaths of American history would not be covered. This is not an encyclopedia. It is not a dictionary.
And so we toyed around with photographs of Obama coming out at Grant Park when he was elected, as well as other photographs. The young kid feeling his fuzzy hair at the White House. But this is where we had our discomfort with the near past.
You hit the early seventies with the construction of the World Trade Center, which itself is a kind of ironic visual trope of these two towers being built up at a moment when we know one of the central moments of our history is those towers coming down. Once we get to that point, everything is pretty open-ended. And we didn't feel that we wanted to go year by year even. We say we're coming into the modern era and we want to be more impressionistic and, most important, brief. All of our films are historical films and do the same thing as well. When we come up to the near present, we're more impressionistic.
Robin Lindley: The photographs you chose are all black and white. You retained the sepia tones for a couple of photographs. Did you consider including color images?
Ken Burns: Yes, we talked about it. We argued about it, and I finally in the end said that would open us up to so many other avenues and possibilities. First of all, there was non-representational abstract photography, all sorts of the manipulations that had taken place, mostly in the post-World War II era in photographs. We decided on the photographs that we used and, while we have employed color [in films], I thought that color would overwhelm.
And there is an elemental simplicity to black and white. And so that was a discipline that we ultimately imposed on ourselves, knowing there are going to be a few “yes buts” out there, including among ourselves and myself as we were debating about it. But it was a pretty easy decision to stick with it.
And I also insisted that Knopf have it be essentially full color so that the book would reflect whatever particular coloration or discoloration or anything that happened to the photographic original that we are borrowing. So sepia is only one degree of allowing a photograph to be what it looks like.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining that process. A major theme that you explore in virtually all of your documentaries is race and diversity. And that perspective is very evident in your book. I was impressed that, even in the first half dozen images or so, you plumb this deep history that's often forgotten or overlooked. You begin with the 1839 self-portrait, but then you have a photograph of Isaac Jefferson who grew up as a slave of Thomas Jefferson and was later freed; and then the hand of an abolitionist branded “SS” that meant “slave stealer”—a new practice to me; and a photograph of an enslaved Black nursemaid and a white child; and then a Native American couple with their child. So much is revealed in the first few pages, and race is one prominent theme through the book.
Petersburg, Virginia c. 1845 (Photo Credit: University of Virginia)
Ken Burns: I think that Americans have tended to tell a history that has been sanitized and superficial.
The reason why I think the Holocaust film was so popular was the fact that the history that Americans like to tell themselves is we ended World War II and then we discovered the concentration camps, and we were shocked. But, point of fact, we'd known back in 1933, the first year that Hitler came to power, that there were 3,000 American articles about discrimination against the Jews in Germany. Even then, in Hitler’s first early steps, we knew what was going on, and we didn't let anybody [Jewish refugees] in. We could have let people in. And even after the horrible footage of the concentration camps was finally released in 1945 at the end of the war and the big sigh of relief, only five percent of Americans wanted to let in refugees.
So, there's a reality for this, and I think there's an important thing to understand that the man [Thomas Jefferson] who wrote our catechism, the man who in one sense distilled a century of enlightenment thinking that begins, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” owned hundreds of human beings, and never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of them. And so there are a group of people who have a peculiar experience. As the scholar Gerald Early says in our film Jazz about being unfree in a free land, which requires Black Americans to work that much harder than the rest of us to live in what is a complicated space.
You begin to realize this new thing that they [Jefferson and the Founders] were proposing, a republic, a democracy, is going to take work and effort, but then imagine the people who are unfree in the supposedly free land. And having to work that much harder still applies today.
So, I'm not superimposing anything. You just cannot do an investigation of the United States that's accurate and deep, in whatever form it is—a documentary or a photographic history book—without delving into questions that inevitably go to our treatment of the Native population that occupied this continent before us. And in the most important way, we look to the way in which Black people have been treated all the way through our history, and the way they intersect and the way they transcend that history.
Omekah, Oklahoma 1911 (Photo Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society)
Look at the picture of Lew Alcindor who will become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Look at the picture of Jackie Robinson rounding first base. Bat number 42. Look at the picture of Louis Armstrong, the most important person in American music in the 20th century and maybe the most important person in music period in the 20th century—not just jazz. And look at the way in which he does it.
Look at the photo of Dr. King and at the way Lincoln in the photograph “listens” to Dr. King. That’s a picture somebody took from behind Lincoln's head in the Lincoln Memorial as outside Martin Luther King is giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. These are important ways of understanding and seeing and connecting American history purely visually without words and without description.
Robin Lindley: The images express our past on many levels. Even some of the beautiful landscapes are ominous, with a recognition of the grandeur while often hiding a deeper and darker history of a locale. For example, the photograph of “Canyon de Chelly, Arizona 1871,” portrays a vivid landscape but, in the description at the back of the book, the readers learns that this picturesque canyon was the site of the brutal “Long Walk,” a forced march to displace the Navajo Indians, part of the American state-sponsored effort to supplant and destroy Indigenous people.
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona 1871 (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Ken Burns: This is the story. At one point, Wynton Marsalis said to me in the Jazz series that sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time. And so that’s what a photograph, what a work of art, can do, if it's unmanipulated.
We just have the most basic and simple of captions. It might show Arizona and a particular year, and that's it. So, you have to then read the photograph, if you will, in its own language, which is different from reading the printed word, and then go back and perhaps be satisfied by a caption, a lengthy caption, or a story about it in the back matter that connects it or enriches the understanding. But it's still the photograph that can convey complex information without undue manipulation. And so that's what we were looking for.
Robin Lindley: I’m just beginning to savor the book, but I was struck by many of your juxtapositions. You have a photo of the kids at a Shaker School (and Shakers believed in celibacy) juxtaposed with a view of the frozen Niagara Falls. And a photo of the Washington Monument juxtaposed with the Carlisle Residential Indian School. I thought many of the selections and placements were ingenious.
And you're also absolutely right to bring up juxtaposition because—with the exception of the first photograph, which is alone on the right-hand page opposite a quote from my ancestor, Robert Burns, and the last photograph that we've described with John Lewis on the left page with nothing on the right—all the remaining photographs are paired with one another, and they not only talk about themselves, but they're basically having a relationship with each other.
The reason why this took years and years to do is just to find the right pair. Some of them are obviously related, like the saguaro cactus in Arizona next to the smokestacks and conveyor belts of an industrial plant in Michigan. And they just have the same kind of architecture. Others are more subtle, but also sometimes playful. There's a picture of a sex worker in Storyville in New Orleans in her camisole and very attractive, and opposite it are the pillars and foundations of Wall Street and the financial system. And there's a kind of playfulness talking about those two, seeing those two across from each other.
And there's nothing unintentional in this, and people will forge ahead and find their own connection between the two facing photographs and their juxtaposition.
What happens is that, if you did this in a year, it would be one-one hundredth of the book. You actually need to let the whole thing marinate and mature and pull out the ones you're proudest of, or the ones in which you think there's a big gigantic wink. You've got to just be self-disciplined.
We probably looked at 30,000 photographs to select the 250 that are here. And we were familiar with many of them in various projects, but it's very interesting that we discovered new ones along the way. And a photograph that covers the subject that we've covered in a film may have never been in that film. Others, like this beautiful shot that's on the back cover of kids playing a form of baseball in an alley in a tenement area in Boston, is just a classic one, which we used in our baseball series to really great effect.
The cover photograph by my mentor, Jerome Liebling, is an amazing shot of this kid standing in front of a car in 1949 in New York City. He is holding his coat in his arms with this rakish attitude and hat and his shoelaces sort of frayed and untied and he has this improbable hockey shirt on. And behind him, the curve and the beauty of the old car, the sweep of the bumper and the wheel housing. It's just great.
I was on a television show and somebody asked, “Who's the most important person you can name?” That may be Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, as seen in the beauty of that exquisite photograph of him in 1865. But I said the kid on the cover is no less American and no less critical to understanding who we are than Abraham Lincoln.
Robin Lindley: That’s an arresting photograph on the cover.
Ken Burns: I love the kid, and it's a way to honor my mentors. The book is dedicated to my mentor, Jerome Liebling, and my father.
Robin Lindley: What was your formal training in photo research and historiography? Some of that probably came from Jerry Liebling when you were in college.
Ken Burns: I have no formal training in research, and I have no formal training in historiography. I've been a storyteller, and photographs are one form of storytelling.
I've been a filmmaker, which is what I’ve wanted to be since I was twelve. Jerome Liebling helped change my mind from becoming a Hollywood director to somebody who makes films about the power of what is happening and what has happened: history. And I just learned to doggedly pursue these stories.
I also collect American quilts, and they're mysteries. I get them because they're beautiful works of art. I may be attracted to a particular design, and sometimes I know nothing or next to nothing about the quilt, and I just have to accept it as it is. And in some ways, the photographs with the minimal captions are like that, too.
I might have a quilt that says “Hannah, 1856.” So, I don't know where Hannah lived. I may have bought it in Pennsylvania, so it's reasonably likely that it comes from Pennsylvania, maybe Lancaster. But is she a Mennonite? Is she Amish? Is she something else? Is she young? Is she a little girl? Is she a teenager? Is she a young mother? Is she working on it with somebody else? Is she a widow? Is she alone? Is she older? These things I don't know. And I have to just accept, whereas in my own work, being essentially self-taught by trial and error about finding photographs and about finding out what actually happened, I investigate the past with my team to the best of our abilities.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1863 (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
With the photographs, I wanted to go back to the open spirit of just looking at a photograph. Minimal caption says “New York in 1863,” and there's a beautiful shot of people looking at some sign. It’s on the right-hand page. It’s a photo of people outside of a newspaper office reading the list of the dead from Gettysburg. And on the left-hand page is Timothy O’Sullivan's famous photograph “Harvest of Death,” as he called it, which is several American bodies lying out in a field at Gettysburg. And so those photographs are definitely talking to one another in a kind of thematic way. Are people reading death notices about specifically those people? Probably not. The chances are infinitesimally small that they are. But in our configuration in this book, they are deeply related to one another.
Robin Lindley: You do a wonderful job of introducing people to primary sources with the narration in your films. And you’re renowned for your scrupulous use of photographs that match the narration. I had a professor who didn't like a lot of American documentaries in the sixties and seventies because they repeatedly used stock footage that wasn’t specific to the story, but he enjoyed BBC documentaries such as The World at War series because—as you do—they obviously took pains to match the photographs and film segments with the narration. And I noticed that you had worked for the BBC early on in your career.
Ken Burns: Yes. My work for the BBC was just to pay the rent and it was usually something they were shooting in the United States. I learned nothing about archival research from them, but we did decide, for example, in The Civil War that, outside of introductory paragraphs, we would never show a dead body that wasn't from the battle we were talking about because somebody's mother, however long she’d been gone, deserved to have the dead from Shiloh not appear at, say, Antietam, and vice versa.
Robin Lindley: We’re living at a time of deep polarization and peril to our democracy. You mention in your book’s introduction that “assembling photographic evidence of our collective past might help heal our divisions.” What do you mean? How can photos do that?
Ken Burns: I wanted to do this book because I wanted to express our history in this way. Once the book is done, it's really no longer mine. It's whoever has it in their hands. And while yes, we are deeply divided, we also know spectacularly how to come together again.
And what I wanted to do is very important in that I use the word “our,” and it goes along with “us,” which is the lowercase two-letter, plural pronoun that has as in its capitals, its partner, the U.S. And so I've been studying the U.S. for decades and decades, but I've also been studying us. And as the introduction says, I've come to the conclusion there's no them. And that's important because, if anyone calls you them, that's a hallmark of division, but there's always somebody other than you.
A book like this is just an attempt to gather the entire family of people together and say, “This is all of us.” And if we could see it in that way, many of the things that we find so agitating in the moment dissolve in the face of seeing a young mother with her ebullient child on a stoop in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1915. There's no mother on earth who doesn't know the joy of being connected to someone who is exhibiting so much joy regardless of what color their skin may be. And that's an important part of erasing the silos that we put ourselves into that exacerbate the division. So, I think photography is a great leveler. It's a wonderful small “d’ democratic tool.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for those inspiring words, Ken, and for your thoughtful comments. And congratulations on your illuminating new photographic history, Our America, and on your tremendous contribution to sharing our history in moving and meticulously researched documentary films. You’ve brought history alive in ways that have fired the imaginations of people of all ages and backgrounds. Best wishes on all of your inspiring work.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: email@example.com.
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