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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Ken Burns’ ‘Our America’ a history in photos

by Philip Martin | November 20, 2022 at 2:07 a.m.
"Our America: A Photographic History" by Ken Burns (Knopf, $75)
  • "The need to reflect on our history through photography is one that seems ever more urgent."
  • — Sarah Hermanson Meiste, in an essay included in Ken Burns' "Our America: A Photographic History"


It's not difficult to bust on Ken Burns.

He's a middle-brow popularizer, a maker of crowd-pleasing documentaries — largely surveys of big American ideas (jazz, baseball) that, for some portion of their audience, serve as both introduction to and final word on their subject.

"More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source," the late historian Stephen Ambrose is alleged to have said, a statement that can be received with awe, horror, or a mixture of both.

I admire Burns, but also worry that he has colonized the American imagination and that his style — a sepia-toned stateliness, the fiddle-and-banjo pan across old photographs of dead people with hard gray eyes — prescribes an attitude about our collective past.

Burns is a reassuring presence, the twinkling kid brother grown gray and made good with an ever-present (and annoying) equanimity. He reminds us that there was trauma in our past, but we have made it out of that jungle to a place where we might safely look back and reflect, like the wise and settled people we have become. Burns is a patriot at heart, but not a jingoist; his America is a romantic notion, but his love is never blind.

His latest project is not a 34-part series on the Silent Generation (a series I would eagerly consume) but a simply conceived coffee-table book comprised of 251 black-and-white photographs that tell a story of America.

"Our America: A Photographic History" (Knopf, $75) begins with a self-portrait of Robert Cornelius taken in 1839 and believed to be the earliest photographic portrait ever taken.

Cornelius was an amateur chemist, a well-educated man who worked in his father's gas lamp-making works in Philadelphia. He heard about and set out to replicate the photographic experiments that Louis Daguerre was conducting in Paris.

But Cornelius and his collaborator, Paul Beck Goddard, discovered a way to improve on Daguerre's formula for treating camera plates, and in so doing, drastically reduced the necessary exposure times. Using Daguerre's method, a subject would have to sit still in front of a camera for at least 25 minutes for an image to register; Cornelius and Goddard's method cut exposure times to less than two minutes.

This made the daguerreotype process a reasonable method of portraiture; before it had been useful for recording still lifes and landscape shots, with any movement rendered as a blur (if at all).

  photo  The fourth company of Black soldiers at Fort Lincoln is shown in “Our America: A Photographic History.” The 1863 Militia Act allowed Black men to become part of the army, albeit segregated. About 180,000 Black men fought in the Union army and 20,000 in the Union navy. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)  'THE FIRST LIGHT PICTURE'

Cornelius built his own camera by fitting a wooden box with a lens from an opera glass. One day when the sun was bright he went behind his father's shop, set up his apparatus, and removed the lens cap. He then sat down in front of the lens for several minutes before replacing the lens again. After developing the print — which he didn't attempt until 1841, two years later — he scribbled on the back: "The first light Picture ever taken. 1839."

It is an eerie image; Cornelius looks rakish and modern, clean-shaven with an upturned collar and tousled hair. There is an underwater quality to the print, a filtered aspect that to the modern eye suggests mannered "antiquing" or the sort of aesthetic that results in the "relic-ing" of relatively new guitars to give them the look of a hard-used vintage instrument.

There's something not quite real about the image that subverts the very idea of the photograph as definitive and irrefutable. There are scratches and ectoplasmic blobs, and the vignetting effect is tastefully if unevenly applied. You'd believe the subject was a Brooklyn hipster or a Hollywood actor and that the noise in the image was digitally introduced.

Cornelius' self-portrait is bookended by Michael Avedon's 2019 portrait of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died in 2020. In his "Illustration Notes," presented in a kind of appendix, Burns notes that on the day before Lewis died, he published an open letter to Americans headlined "Together, You Can Redeem The Soul of Our Nation" in The New York Times.

"Democracy is not a state," Lewis wrote. "It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself."

It's true to Burns' generally optimistic outlook to end his book with Lewis' hopeful message. It's Burns' book, he should order it as he feels appropriate. In these notes, Burns stays clear of any textural description or comment on the content of the photograph, allowing the image to speak for itself. Instead he tends a few background facts, placing the photos in historical context. The idea may be to provide a kind of visual poem, a flow of emotive narration, arranged for the most part chronologically, that isn't reducible to words.

An alternate method might have been to arrange photographs so as to heighten the conversation between them. Avedon captures Lewis in a beatific pose, his hands folded (corpse-like) on his chest with his eyes closed.

Contrast this with the 1993 portrait Avedon's father Richard took of Lewis in 1993; in that photograph (not in Burns' book) Lewis looks directly into the camera, his hand in front of him, fingers touching not quite prayerfully. This is a portrait of a man with expectations that are not being met.

The younger Avedon was no doubt familiar with his father's portrait from 26 years earlier, and I would imagine Burns is as well. While there are all sorts of perfectly acceptable reasons to present one without the other (How much would it cost to reproduce a Richard Avedon photograph in your book? Probably a lot.), Burns' resistance to such obvious juxtapositions says something about the kind of book he wanted to make.

These are his core samples of America; readers can supply their own interpretation. There is a certain rigor in his method, an almost journalistic commitment to the objectivity photographs (falsely) promise.

AN ARRESTED MOMENT

"To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed," Susan Sontag famously wrote. What she meant is we should not assume that because we have seen a picture we know some immutable truth. A photograph is an arrangement of light in a particular arrested moment; we see only what's in the frame frozen in an eternal present. A photograph can help tell a story. It is not a story. But it has the lure of authority.

Burns understands Sontag's concerns about the camera's alienating power, how viewing a photograph might put one "into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power." Sontag worried that writing "about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire."

In his introduction Burns acknowledges this danger as he talks about his professor, photographer Jerry Liebling, whose 1949 photograph "Boy and Car" is used inside and on the cover of the book's dust jacket.

"He used to command all of us who sought out his wisdom with a kind of mantra: Go. See. Do. Be. He wanted us all to actively go out and engage in life, to pay attention to everything, to see how light struck the cornice of a building, how a woman's hand moved as she spoke to a companion, where the fleeting organization of the universe periodically revealed itself ... . There was an inherent reciprocity involved in taking a photograph that we could not shirk. It could not be — as Susan Sontag suggests — merely about appropriation. A camera wasn't something we could hide behind, Jerry said; we were required to engage ... ."

So by Burns' lights, the photographer has a humanist responsibility, the duty to engage with his subject. There should be nothing passive about taking a photograph. (Some photographers prefer the phrase "making a picture," because "taking a photograph" suggests there's little to the act other than clicking a button.) That's an interesting idea, though at least some of the photographs in this book seem to have been taken from a safe vantage point. I'm not sure all the photographers whose work is gathered here follow Jerry Liebling's dictum.

But that's how we remember things, isn't it? Sometimes we are in the midst of the smoke and chaos, face to face with our enemy with bayonets fixed. Other times we are high above the action, as removed as God.

Or a drone.

  photo  Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lincoln, the last time the president ever sat for a camera, shows up in Ken Burns’ book “Our America: A Photographic History.” The photo was taken Feb. 5, 1865, 10 weeks before Lincoln’s death. Lincoln was the first U.S .president who used photography for political purposes. Gardner was a Scottish photographer who moved to America in 1856. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)  PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES

"Memory is imperfect," Burns writes. "But its inherent instability allows our past, which we usually see as fixed, to remain as it actually is: malleable, changing not just as new information emerges but as our own interests, emotions, and inclinations change. I believe the study of history — particularly a complex and nuanced view of it populated with visual artifacts, like these photographs — can be a table around which all of us can have a personal stake in these past events, the simple moments and grand episodes where we can have human engagement and try to evoke what Abraham Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature.'...

"It is our intention, without nostalgia or unforgiving revisionism, to gather up in these images the generous and the greedy, the prurient and the puritan, the sordid and the sensational, the hideous and the humorous, the miserable and the miraculous."

Burns does not shy away from atrocity; the second photo in the book is an 1845 portrait of a man once owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third of the branded hand of an abolitionist punished for having abetted runaway slaves — "S.S." was burned into his flesh, for "slave stealer."

A page or so later, a white child of privilege is photographed alongside his enslaved Black caregiver. The story threads through darkness and light, through matter-of-fact atrocity and uplifting ingenuity. There are dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg; there's Yosemite Valley in 1864, where a man stands in solidarity with a lone giant sequoia, overlooking a magnificent valley.

A few photos are familiar and famous — Alexander Gardner's 1865 portrait of Lincoln, the last time the president ever sat for a camera, shows up, as does a picture capturing the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

But most of these are underseen images that will be fresh to the eyes of most of those experiencing them. At times, it feels as though Burns is a prosecutor, putting exhibit after exhibit of American disappointment into the record.Have you heard of the lynching of Laura Nelson and her 14-year-old son near Okemah, Okla., in 1911? Woody Guthrie's father, Charley, was reportedly part of the mob that dragged them from their jail cells. Burns reprints one of the photos that was turned into a postcard and notes that no one was prosecuted for their murders.

  photo  This is an early 1900s subterranean shot of Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue subway station. The New York City subway system opened in 1904. At the time, the Nation called it “a slight transit improvement.” (Courtesy of Library of Congress)  TEDDY AND JACK

There is a rather prosaic shot of Teddy Roosevelt at the Arkansas State Fair in Hot Springs in 1910, on a page opposite heavyweight Jack Johnson looming over bloodied "Great white hope" Jim Jeffries in an outdoor ring in Reno, Nev. Jeffries hadn't fought in six years before un-retiring in an effort to depose the Black champion. He had ballooned to more than 330 pounds; in the months before the fight he lost more than 100 pounds to get back close to his fighting weight. He lasted 15 (of a scheduled 45!) rounds with Johnson before his manager threw in the towel.

Most of the photographs have cinematic backstories, though sometimes the notes provided are sketchy (and, on a couple of occasions, poorly edited — at one point the year 1911 is misidentified as 2011; in another case, Sen. Joseph McCarthy is called "Eugene" — a problem that's not uncommon in publishing these days. Newspapers are not excepted from this scourge, but we do expect a lot from Knopf.)

It's difficult to argue about the photographs selected — Burns' criteria is personal and the accretive effect is more sobering and less celebratory than one might expect. His vision is sanguine, but he's no denier of the "facts" as evidenced by the pictures he has collected.

Ken Burns is no Pollyanna, and the accessibility of his work has more to do with his talent for communication than any imagined reductionism or oversimplification. "Our America: A Photographic History" is a picture book, not "America For Dummies."

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com

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