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Ken Burns on ‘Our America: A Photographic History’ The historical filmmaker’s new book of photography, 15 years in the making, tells the story of the U.S. and us.

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Above image credit: Ken Burns and his father in 1958. (Courtesy | Ken Burns)
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14 minute read

For the better part of a half century, Ken Burns has been on a mission to tell America’s story, warts and all, taking us on a deep dive through the Civil War, Country Music and the U.S. and the Holocaust, among his more than three dozen documentaries and series. But to understand why he’s been scratching this itch since the 1970s, all you need to do is read the introduction to his new coffee table book, 15 years in the making, “Our America: A Photographic History.”

Burns will tell you that his love affair with the still photograph — what he calls the DNA of his life’s work — began in his dad’s Delaware darkroom when he was 3 years old. There, in his earliest memory, he recalls being held in his father’s “strong left arm, watching a wonderful alchemy take place, as an image began to slowly emerge from a blank piece of photographic paper immersed in a tray of strong-smelling chemicals, under a dim eerie red light, my father’s right hand agitating the newborn print with metal tongs. To a 3-year-old it seemed like magic.”

By his teenage years, Burns had locked in his career path, thanks to an evening watching a film with his father called “Odd Man Out” about the Irish Troubles. While his father hadn’t cried during what he calls his mother’s “long, excruciating illness nor at her death, nor at her funeral,” Burns saw his father crying for the first time at the end of the film. “I vowed to myself, right then and there, that I would become a filmmaker,” Burns declared.  

In the book’s dedication, Burns writes: “My father (Robert K. Burns Jr.) who introduced me to the magic of the photographic process, gave me my first camera and also gave me my love of films.” 

“At the end of the day, we’ve tried to retain the miraculous, we’ve tried to keep the mystery and the unknowing as not something that’s frustrating but something to be welcomed and celebrated.”

Ken Burns, documentarian

Smitten with the American story since his days at Hampshire College in west central Massachusetts, Burns’ passion to make films with a reverence for the still photograph was fueled by his mentor Jerome Liebling, who received top billing in the book’s dedication. Burns writes that he “instilled in me a love and respect for the still image and the great power it has to convey the most complex information about us.”

You could make a case that 69-year-old Ken Burns has, more than anyone, made history come alive in America’s living rooms, on computer screens and in its classrooms. His Civil War epic was seen by more eyeballs than any series in the history of public television. Burns is not slowing down. He’s in production with four new documentaries ranging from “The American Revolution” to “The American Buffalo” to “LBJ & The Great Society.”

Burns spoke with Next Avenue from his home in Walpole, New Hampshire.

Next Avenue: It’s hard enough to deeply research a single-topic documentary series. But how did you whittle down to 251 the photographs (from 1839 to 2019) that are now between the hardcovers of your book, representing what you call Our America? 

Ken Burns: It’s interesting. I collect quilts. And no amount of research can really reveal the story behind each quilt. Each has a unique provenance that will remain unknown. How old was Hannah, the girl who may have signed it — 12, 18, 21? Was she married? What is the story behind this quilt? You’re just left with this magnificent piece of art.

Portrait of Ken Burns.
Ken Burns. (Credit | Michael Avedon)

I spent all of my professional life, seven days a week, investigating and finding out what the facts are, what the truth is about certain events, and then trying to fashion them into stories that reflect that. This book, born over years and years and years of evenings and weekends, was like the quilts, an ability to go back to the DNA of all my work, which is the still photograph. 

I wanted to produce a volume that treated each photograph as an event — one photograph per page with the most minimal captions, then in relationship to the other photograph across the page, whether there are compositional similarities or thematic similarities or where there’s just kind of architectural similarities, they begin to speak to each other. And then in the back of the book, you’re able to look at a thumbnail of that photograph with a prose description of it. It gives you another dimension to the story, and I just love it.

At the end of the day, we’ve tried to retain the miraculous, we’ve tried to keep the mystery and the unknowing as not something that’s frustrating but something to be welcomed and celebrated. This is the great gift of art where one and one equals three and in an improbable calculus — bridges don’t stand, and houses don’t stand unless one and one is always two. But what we look for in our faith, in our art, in our relationships, in so much is this improbable calculus that any art can do. And I think photography does extraordinarily well. 

Photograph of Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, taken in 1839.
Photograph of Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, taken in 1839. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

The first photo in the book from 1839 has a pedigree all its own.

The book begins with the first photograph ever taken in the United States, appropriately as an American story, a self-portrait. (Robert Cornelius took what amounted to the first selfie using a wooden box fitted with a lens from an opera glass for the camera.)      

And the book ends more or less in the present, as historians are a little bit leery of trying to set the near past and the present in any sort of firm opinions.

Was part of your mission here to authentically represent the gory and the glory of this multifaceted country?

Let’s take the easiest part first. “Our America” is an attempt to celebrate in the divided world we live in now, regardless of those divisions and the myopia that it promotes and helps to foster, that we are all connected, good and bad, dark and light. And so this book represents this phenomenal glory of our natural world. Some of the photographers are famous, like Matthew Brady and Lewis Hine, some of them are unknown. Some of them are just, regular folks. But they all have in common a sense of their totality of us. Each of the 50 states is represented. Every film I’ve worked on is represented, even if that photograph wasn’t used in the film. They are just amazing photographs of America that got included. So, it was an adventure, an exploration. The discoveries were new and novel, and yet it has some old friends on it.

In fact, the cover is a young boy standing in front of a car in 1949 in New York City, holding his coat between his arms with a rakish hat, untied shoes and a hockey shirt with an amazing attitude — looking right at the camera in the fullness of his being.

Cover of "Our America: A Photographic History"

And that was taken by Jerome Liebling, my professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, who was primarily a still photographer, even though he was a professor of film and photography. And to realize, even in what seems to us today as simple, and perhaps because of the billions being taken on our phones — the degraded act of making a photograph — that there was a kind of huge responsibility, a kind of reciprocity. Look into the eyes of the kid and you will see that that he met Jerry with the same quality. There’s no communication except among equals. And Jerry reduced what could have been something that was appropriated, something that was taken, into a marvelous exchange with the full humanity of this kid on display. It is for us then the fact that we have a permanent record of that humanity and the value of his individuality in the face of all of the pressures of deciding who someone is in advance of actually finding out who they are, and even through race or gender or through religion or through dress or all of the things that impose upon us the biases that we, more often than not, are completely unaware of.

And what was it about Liebling that motivated you to become the person you became? 

Well, I don’t recognize the person who came into Hampshire College in September of 1971 and the person who left in June of ’75. It just rearranged all my molecules. And part of that is the secret sauce of Hampshire and how they do things differently. Higher education has become extraordinarily transactional. Hampshire was always, and still remains to this day, phenomenally transformational. So let me credit Hampshire, but Jerry was something special. It was a true mentor situation. And he brought a sense of the work in the classroom that was important, but it was a 24-hour-a-day thing. As I said in my intro to the book, he would say, “Go. See. Do. Be.”  Meaning get out in the world. Look with fresh eyes, be present. And in between that, do something, take a photograph, make a film, just engage. And so, all of us, we’re following that dictum with a kind of fervor.

One of the earliest photos in the book from 1863 is called “Harvest of Death,” and it depicts rotting corpses awaiting burial at the bloodiest single battle of the Civil War: Gettysburg. It was taken by Timothy O’Sullivan and displayed in Alexander Gardner’s “Photographic Sketchbook of the War” with a caption saying this photo “conveys a useful moral: It shows the blank horror and reality of war in opposition to the pageantry. Here are the dreadful details, let them aid in preventing another calamity falling upon the nation.” Is there any evidence this photo was circulated widely enough that it may have indeed prevented future war on American soil? Or is that too much to ask of a photo?

The dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

It’s way too much to ask. It is, of course, what we hope it will do. But Ecclesiastes said, ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun,’ which suggests that human nature doesn’t change. And that, of course, imposes a kind of a pessimism on people, but not necessarily, it’s just possibility. That’s why people say history repeats itself. It never does. There’s no event that’s happened twice. But Mark Twain is supposed to have said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And I haven’t made a film that doesn’t rhyme in the present with what’s going on. And yes, this Gettysburg photo was widely circulated, and it caused people great pause. But we wax and wane about this. Sometimes we credit the photograph of the assassination of the North Vietnamese spy on the streets of Saigon by a South Vietnamese Army official as helping to bring an end to the (Vietnam) war, just as the Napalm Girl also did that. And it may have, but our willingness to commit humanity to that is nearly always short lived. And we find out later another enthusiasm or rationale why we should go to war and kill other human beings. 

I’ve lived in the Washington, D.C., area for 44 years now. And when I saw the 1925 photo of the Ku Klux Klan demonstration at the U.S. Capitol — the giant 48-star American flag covering the Capitol steps being held by hooded Klansmen and women — I quickly realized it had taken place only about 50 years before I moved to Washington. It was the heyday of the Klan. There were 30,000 members of the Klan parading down Pennsylvania Avenue, but no sign of police in the photo. It almost seemed as though the Klan ran the Capital City at the time.

Klansmen on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1925.
Klansmen on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1925. (Courtesy | Getty Images)

They weren’t considered a threat. And that speaks volumes about where we were. The Klan was a homegrown terrorist organization that had focused on terrorizing Black people after the emancipation in the period known as Reconstruction, and particularly afterwards. And they had a resurgence where they had millions and millions of followers. And that’s because they added to their portfolio not just the racism at the height of their founding, but the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic stuff. The Klan ran the whole southern half of Indiana. In fact, you can go ahead in my book to 1986 and there’s another dramatic photograph of the Klan with a cross burning. And what is so terrifying is that the caption says it’s in Connecticut.

Klansmen in East Windsor, Connecticut, in 1986.
Klansmen in East Windsor, Connecticut, in 1986. (Courtesy | Getty Images)

Just like in our recent film on the U.S. and the Holocaust, there are thousands of people parading in Nazi uniforms and brown shirts with American flags and Nazi flags. And it’s in New Jersey. It’s a picnic. It’s a rally. It’s a jamboree.

Recall Charlottesville five years ago? The chant: ‘Jews will not replace us’?

Yeah, why the Klan is in Washington, D.C., (in 1925) is that they’re essentially celebrating the fact that we’ve shut the door. We used to have open immigration from 1870 to 1920, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s. But just about everybody came in and that caused that replacement fear. And the backlash was to corrode. But eugenics was promoting this idea of a hierarchy of race in which the general anti-Semitism of the country was raised to a fever pitch by industrialists like Henry Ford, and later in the America First Committee by Charles Lindbergh, but many other people. And so the Klan is celebrating the centrality of their anti-Black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish ideas. 

Lest people think that the photos in this book present a totally dark cast on America, there are some fun glimpses of life at different times that seem unrecognizable today. One of them was the women on the beach in Jamestown, Rhode Island, in 1897, in their knee-length puff sleeve wool dresses. Why was it important to show these types of photos? 

Women on the beach in Jamestown, Rhode Island, in 1897.
Women on the beach in Jamestown, Rhode Island, in 1897. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

Because that’s our America. There’s a huge preponderance of photographs that show the beauty of the United States from the national parks. There’s kids playing, picnics, baseball games, there’s all of that stuff and there’s lots of light. I love those girls on the beach with their idea of racy bathing suits with bloomers and leggings. They’re having a good time.

There’s another shot of girls from the early 20th century stealing a cigarette. And the photograph just gloriously captures the kind of sneaking around that this represented, and kind of a liberation that it would later represent for women. You know, there’s lots of kids there, they’re just people doing their lives.

Women smoking in 1909.
Women smoking in 1909. (Courtesy | Duke University, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

This is the problem with our world today. It says they only paint the dark side. There are no sides. There’s only one race, and that’s the human race. And no one people, no one pigmentation of skin is any way is different than anybody else. Somebody from Uganda loves their children the way you love your children, period. Full stop. Are there thieves? Yes, but there are thieves among us. Are there murderers? Yes, there are murderers among us. This is human nature. What I realized is that I have been making films for nearly 50 years about the U.S., but I’ve also been making films about us. That is to say the lowercase two-letter, plural pronoun, all of the intimacy of us and also all of the complexity, the majesty, the contradiction, and even the controversy of the United States. That’s the space I’ve always operated in. And this book is made in the spirit of that. It is at once celebratory of an exceptional people and also full of grief and loss and pain.

I remember first meeting you nearly 30 years ago on a baseball field in Virginia for a ‘Nightline’ episode when you were promoting your baseball documentary. I was shocked, but not really surprised to read that the 2022 World Series just ended was the first since 1950 with no U.S.-born African American players. The percentage of Black players in the Major League has been steadily falling. It’s now down to about 7%. Your photograph of Jackie Robinson made me think he must be spinning in his grave right now. 

Jackie Robinson rounding first base.
Jackie Robinson rounding first base. (Courtesy | Shutterstock)

No, no, that’s a limited view of it. When Jackie Robinson was rounding first base with the number 42, his back faced to us, baseball was by far the dominant sport. College football was a distant second. Baseball was it. And Jackie Robinson didn’t just open the door to African Americans who flooded in and changed the game dramatically. But he also opened it up to Hispanics and then later, by extension, to the Asians that are in the game. African Americans gravitated to other sports for the reason there was room. We’re in the middle of the football season and can on many teams find a defense that doesn’t have any other people but African Americans. You might find a white linebacker. And the same is true in professional basketball, in which the percentage of African Americans is even higher than in the National Football League. So that African Americans are dominating in these other sports represent choice. And the void has been filled with predominantly Hispanic baseball players that Jackie Robinson also brought in. So, you know, he’s not spinning in his grave. He understands it’s progress. Now, could baseball do a better job of selling itself to African Americans? You bet.

The last photo in the book of the late Rep. John Lewis was taken in 2019. You quote him saying, ‘Democracy is not a state, it is an act and each generation must do its part to help build what we call the beloved community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.’ But two years after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the symbol of our democracy, I wonder if your book had extended into 2020 and 2021, would you have added a photograph of the Jan. 6 insurrection?  

U.S. Rep. John Lewis in 2016.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis in 2016. (Courtesy | Michael Avedon)

No, I would not unless I made the book in 2030. And then, of course, it would. You’ve got to get far away from the events. John Lewis represents both the hope and the pain of our struggles to live out, as Dr. King said, the true meaning of our creed. And that’s why Lewis ended the book. He was a personal hero of mine. I knew him. He was beautiful. The photograph was taken by Michael Avedon, who also took the jacket cover of me and is the grandson of Richard Avedon, the great photographer. So there’s a wonderful kind of synergy that came along. And I’m very proud to put my friend and more importantly, one of the greatest Americans, John Lewis, as the last photograph of this and say, you know what? There’s work to be done. And boy, is there, right?  And so, ‘Our America’ is an attempt to say, look, if you self-select the information you get, then you see out of only one eye and there’s no dimension to it.

I heard you quote Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Birmingham jail in an interview last year and noticed the same quote in the introduction to this book, so perhaps it’s the note to end on.

What King said is: ‘All life is interrelated. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be until I am what I ought  to be.’

Which photograph from the book evokes the garment of destiny King spoke of?

There’s no one photograph there that represents it because nothing can represent it. And that’s why it’s a plural. Our America. It’s not this is America. That garment is tattered, as it has been at various times in our past, and it will probably be made whole again through patches and restoration. But this is our challenge.

The only way this democracy fails is if good people do not come to the aid of their country.   

This article first appeared on Next Avenue, a nonprofit news site created by Twin Cities PBS. Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and former senior producer of “ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel.”

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