When it comes to history — particularly American history — nothing is ever definitive, says documentarian Ken Burns. Much of his work has focused on capturing that history in film, but in his new book, Our America: A Photographic History, his goal is to share the complexity of his country as well as honor those roots in still images. From the very first photograph, a self-portrait, to our modern inundation with selfies, he tells “the story of us” — a story of darkness and light, just as in the photographic process itself.
Ken joined Tyler to discuss how facial expressions in photos have changed over time, where in the American past he’d like to visit most, the courage of staying in place, how he feels about intellectual property law, the ethical considerations of displaying violent imagery, why women were so prominent in the early history of American photography, the mysteries in his quilt collection, the most underrated American painter, why crossword puzzles are akin to a cup of coffee, why baseball won’t die out, the future of documentary-making, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded November 1st, 2022
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Conversations with Tyler merch is now available! Visit our store at mercatusmerch.com to purchase some swag. If you use the promo code UNDERRATED, you’ll save 10% at checkout.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Ken Burns, who needs no introduction; he is America’s best-known documentarian. But most notably, we are recording today, November 1: the publication date for Ken’s new book, called Our America: A Photographic History, and it is written with also Susanna Steisel, Brian Lee, and David Blistein.
KEN BURNS: Thank you, Tyler. Great to be with you.
COWEN: I have so many questions. Let’s start with photography.
As a nation, what is it that we have failed to photograph adequately?
BURNS: I’m totally taken aback by that wonderful question, because I sort of feel that we have over-photographed. I say in my introduction that the cliché that a picture’s worth a thousand words has now probably been devalued or diminished to 500 or 250 or maybe 100. The attempt of this book was trying to return full value to an individual image and its ability to convey complex information without undue manipulation (meaning captions or explanations).
What you have here is the photography book that I’ve worked on in nights and weekends for years and years and years with my colleagues: One photograph per page, minimal caption; more than 250 photographs covering from the very first photograph taken in America up to more or less the present. Because I am in the history business and we get a little bit nervous when you get within 25 years.
And you begin to have conversations between the two photographs on the page. What we do is we have back matter in which there’s a thumbnail of that photograph and a much fuller description: the photographer, the credit, other related information that might be of interest. But we first wanted the photograph to have full value.
Having said that, and established sort of the raison d’être for the book, I think that there are lots of areas which our attention doesn’t go into. It may be that the photographs are taken, they’re collected — and this is a book filled with famous photographers like Mathew Brady or Lewis Hine. But it’s also filled with many anonymous ones or people that we’ve never heard of, but just photographs that we’ve stumbled across in the nearly 50 years of exploring American history that we’ve done.
The thing I want to say about my work: no matter how much footage is in it — newsreels or whatever it might be — the still image is still the DNA of what we do. This has been a labor of love for me for many, many years because I wanted to honor my roots.
My father was a cultural anthropologist but an amateur photographer. My first memory is of him building a darkroom and developing pictures when I was two, three years old. It was just an amazing thing. Then my mentor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I went from ’71 to ’75, Jerome Liebling — whose cover of a kid in 1949 in New York City, in front of a car, holding his jacket with a certain way — was one of the formative forces, like my father, in this respect for the still image. He was a still photographer, even though I was a filmmaker (he’d made some films), but he helped remind me and ground me.
Though he’s been gone — my dad’s been gone for 21 years; he’s been gone for 11 years, Jerome Liebling — they still influence me every day. So the book is dedicated to them, but also to this idea that even in this era of inattention, we tend to take too many pictures and not stop and permit the photograph to just be and to just communicate that complex information that I said.
COWEN: We’re all familiar with the concept of a photo face: you tense up a bit; you become less relaxed.
How have photo faces in America changed over time, given all the photographs you’ve studied?
BURNS: This is another great question, Tyler.
In the beginning, like painting, which was accessible mostly to the very wealthy — there was very few genre paintings in the 19th century, certainly not in the 18th century, that would sort of show ordinary life to an extent that we could really get, in painting, a photographic sense. So at the advent of photography, and because of the long exposures — beginning in 1839, the first American photograph (the same year that Louis Daguerre is working in Paris perfecting it and is the inventor of it) — you get people sort of presenting themselves to the camera with a kind of formality that feels almost Calvinistic. As if you’re doing it — a lot of it is the way, when you had your painting done, you did it because you wanted to present your face to a God in a world that was mostly about suffering, and it was the next world where maybe there’d be some rewards.
But photography quickly developed into something that could be playful, something that could be self-reflective. Now, in some ways, we’ve gone to the far extreme, and it’s cheapened.
You can be, as I do in New York City — my first film was on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I have an opportunity to walk over it two or three times a week, and I take that opportunity. And it’s filled with people not [laughs] taking pictures of the bridge and its magnificent latticework of cables and these great gothic stone towers and compression and the cables in tension with their network, but they’re going [clicking sound] to themselves, or they’re putting the bridge in the background and they’re doing it. And there’s now another instantaneous kind of false thing, a false pose.
I think we’ve all become perhaps too susceptible to that. You know, I take selfies if I’m meeting somebody at a talk that I’m giving and they want a picture with me — that’s fine. But I don’t take selfies of myself everywhere that I go. I’d rather look at the Brooklyn Bridge and try to compose a view that I haven’t yet seen because of light, because of angle, because of disposition of photographer.
That’s where I want people to understand the real power of photography.
COWEN: How do you listen to photographs?
BURNS: That’s something that has been part of my work. Being the son of an amateur photographer and being trained as a filmmaker by still photographers, the still photograph was the DNA. But then when I was trying to make come alive the historical subjects that became my lifework, I had to treat a photograph as if it was an arrested moment of a reality that had had a past and would have a future.
For example: a cart moving through a city street. We see the photograph of that — I’ll just make up a date: 1855. I wanted to believe that that cart a minute or so before was out of the frame and in just a few seconds would be out on the other side of the frame. So as I was filming it, to help bring alive the past, the still photograph was an opportunity for a visual thing. How do you not just hold a still photograph at arm’s length and just wait till you can get some newsreels, but how do you go in and energetically explore with a roving camera-eye: the wide shot, the medium shot, the close-up, the tilt, the pan, the reveal, the insert of details?
And then at the same time, if you were trying to will this photograph alive — “wake the dead,” my late father-in-law said of what I do for a living — you also had to listen to it. As I’m looking through, I’m thinking, Is the horse clip-cloppeting? Is the wagon jostling? Is the bat cracking or is the crowd cheering? Is the cannon firing? Are the muskets ricocheting? Even, just simply, are the leaves rustling in the trees?
That has become part of the animating process: It’s not just seeing it liberated from just one focal point of view, visually, but aurally getting in and trying to understand the complexity.
Our soundtracks, from the beginning, have been as complex as feature films that almost rarely record full sound. They will add it on, and you have what’s called Foley artists. They’re people who sit in these booths with cement surfaces and dirt surfaces and hard shoes and sneakers, and they make all the effects of people walking down the street, because the sound is so corrupted and they want a clean sound.
We’ve been applying that kind of mentality to the old photographs that are the lifeblood of what we discover and find.
COWEN: Why were hats ever so popular? It seems to me that their carrying costs exceed their liquidity premia. They’re not good for very much.
Old photographs, you see so many men in hats, or women. Why?
BURNS: Well, it’s just fashions. It’s so interesting. I was talking about this book, and in 1903, I have a picture —
This book is arranged chronologically from that first picture in 1839. More or less every year — not all the time, and sometimes multiple pictures for a particular year, and sometimes we don’t know precisely the date, so it might be “circa 1900.” And give the location; every 50 state is represented. Almost all my projects are, though there are many photographs of a particular subject I have covered that’s not in that film — it’s something new that this last 10, 15 years of night and weekend work discovered.
But people go through fashions. We’re clean-shaven, and then all of a sudden everybody had a beard. Everybody had a hat. Fashions change. I’ve got a 1903 picture of the Royal Rooters, who were the Boston Red Sox’s — or what was the team before the Boston Red Sox would become the Red Sox — passionate rooters in the first year that they won the first World Series ever against the Pittsburgh team from the National League. They’re all men, for the most part, and they’re all wearing ties and hats and whatever.
Now you go to a ballpark, and besides the announcers, finding someone in a coat and a tie and a kind of formality is long gone. Used to be that every football coach roaming the sideline had a hat and a coat and a tie. Now you’ve got cutoff sweatshirts and various informal things.
These are all the impositions, into the photographic frame, of fashion.
COWEN: Let’s say we give you a time machine and enough currency and protection against any diseases —
BURNS: Thank you.
COWEN: You can go back in time to the American past. Which place and decade do you most want to visit?
BURNS: Well, it’s interesting you said that — I am speaking to you from my barn, the loft of my barn. Which doesn’t keep animals; it’s got bedrooms, and it’s got an informal great room where we bring in folding chairs and have screenings and tables and work with our consultants when we’re not limited by pandemics. It’s where up in this loft I’ve spent — sharing my space with my youngest child’s toys on the other side — where I’ve done all my editing work and mixing work for most of the last two-and-a-half years. This barn is in a tiny little village I’ve lived in for more than 43 years in Walpole, New Hampshire.
I would like to go back to Walpole, New Hampshire, in the 1870s, provided I had access to antibiotics, and to be able to enjoy my beautiful town. I’ve got pictures of it. In fact, there’s a picture of it in the book: of a young woman standing by a country road, a track. You can just see the wagon ruts, wheels up and grass in between, by a stone wall with some flowering trees nearby.
It must have been nirvana, in a way, a kind of — the winters were severe; there were diseases that took people — but it was a special place. I’ve never had the courage to leave this place, nor do I wish to have it. It was where I retreated from New York City to be able to pursue historical documentary (strike one) on PBS (strike two) about American history (strike three). Taking, I was positive back in 1979, a vow of anonymity and poverty. I’m very happy to say the first film that I was halfway through making when I moved up here was nominated for an Academy Award, and all of that stuff didn’t happen.
The great courage was actually to stay here and continue to make the films from here. And I’ve always wanted that time machine to take me back to this beautiful town and to see it and to hear those sounds I’ve imagined: the birds free of the traffic from Interstate 91, about five, three, four miles due west in Vermont. (The Connecticut River divides us from Vermont; it’s not too far away.) To hear the silence; to also hear the new set of associations and sounds that come from the bustling of skirts or the wagon wheels or the horses or some of the other things. And then the things that are the same: the wind in the leaves and children laughing and playing.
This is my world. Usually it’s like, Who would you want to meet? I can tell you that: it would be Abraham Lincoln or Louis Armstrong or Frederick Douglass. These are hugely important — Elizabeth Cady Stanton — hugely important people that I’ve delved into.
I think with that simple time machine, I just go back where I am and see what it was like in 1875, whatever it would be.
COWEN: Do you accept the common stereotype that New Hampshire residents are a bit ornery and nonconformist? Does that ring true to you?
BURNS: No — it’s a state that’s undergone a lot of changes since I’ve been here but also a state that has a kind of fundamental unchanging. We’re the Granite State; we’re not the Green Mountain State across the way (our Vermont brethren). There is a little bit of that kind of rock-ribbed sense. But people are pretty direct. They tell you — there’s not hidden behind the niceties that some areas of the country —
One thinks of southern hospitality, which is often just a mile wide but only an inch thick, or midwestern “nice,” which often betrays a great deal of stuff. You know, what you see is what you get. So maybe the ornery is just honesty.
COWEN: How should we improve intellectual property law for the reproduction of photographs? You must have incredible experience with it. Is it perfect, or could it be better?
BURNS: You know what? It’s imperfect, of course, as all things on this earth are. I suppose it could be — I have to see this, Tyler, from both sides of the equation, right? I’m forever searching. In The Civil War series alone, we got photographs from 163 different sources. One time it would just be one photograph from a single private individual. Sometimes you might spend 8 or 10 weeks at the Library of Congress filming off an easel the Mathew Brady collection. (He went bankrupt and Congress took pity on him and bought some of his negatives that began the beginning of their remarkable photographic stuff.)
We’re always wanting — and thrilled when our government gives us access, essentially for free, or for a nominal reproduction cost if we’re ordering a photograph. And then other places can charge a huge amount and you want more access.
At the same time, I am a filmmaker making things, and I have to survive on the selling of my images — and so one understands it. I think the protection of intellectual property rights is important, but at the same time, there’s got to be a moment where it moves into the public domain, and we have the ability to have a freer exchange.
Because if you think about the huge costs — and I made two big series in succession on the Vietnam War and on country music, and the budgets were in the tens of millions for those films. They were many-episode series. But a lot of that was just rights: for music, for the music publishing, for the film of that music, but also the film itself or the still photographs, often in commercial houses. Millions of dollars of that budget went not to inflated executive salaries — you’re looking at him — but in fact to rights. We’d always love a much more inexpensive way.
Then you begin to think that because of my track record and the ability — it’s never easy to raise money. Who’s not able to raise money? Who can’t tell the story that they want to tell? That’s, I think, a really important thing. PBS, I think, has been in the forefront of trying to figure out a way in which we can support those projects that would not heretofore in a completely unfettered marketplace be able to do it. They just wouldn’t be able to afford it.
We’re excited about, recently, being able to hear stories that probably in another age wouldn’t be told because PBS has one foot in the marketplace, tentatively, and the other proudly out of it. And I think I’ve spent — not think; I have spent my entire professional life making films that will be shown on PBS because that is the condition that I need to give me the artistic independence: the time it takes to do these things.
I could easily walk over to a premium cable channel or a streaming service and get the money I need to do The Vietnam War in maybe one conversation instead of 10 years of raising money, but they wouldn’t give me the 10 years to make the film. They’d want it in a couple of years. I wouldn’t be able to do the deep dives that I’m able to do because PBS sets a pick for me, if you will. There’s not a bunch of suits giving notes.
It’s been another, I think, important decision that I made that was the right one. Staying in New Hampshire, living in the same house, sleeping in the same bedroom that I moved to 43 and a half years ago has made all the difference and has liberated me in a way that — maybe some of my colleagues have become richer. I’m not sure that —
If you only measure richness by the bottom line, you’ve missed an important component of what you’re bringing up, too, which is intellectual freedom and artistic freedom, which I’ve been able to enjoy.
COWEN: What do you take to be the ethical limits on displaying photography, say, in a public exhibit or in a book? If you consider, say, photographs of lynchings — it’s a very important part of our history, but obviously deeply disturbing. Where do we draw that line? What is too explicit? Put aside pornography, but take violence.
BURNS: Well, let me go back to the pornography discussion that the Supreme Court had in the early ’70s. “I know it when I see it,” one of the justices is supposed to have said. It’s a moment-to-moment calibration, Tyler. It’s a hugely important part of our work.
The last film we released, in September, was a film called The U.S. and the Holocaust. One of the things we were absolutely certain about is that we didn’t want to revictimize the victims by exploiting the images, the graphic images, of it. We’re always pulling out the fuel rods of that. We’re not showing, even in The Civil War series, the most gruesome photographs that way came apart. We film them, we have them; they’re permanently etched in my brain, I’m sorry to say. They haunt me, but it is really important that we’re careful about it.
Now it’s interesting that you brought up shots of lynching, because one of the main projects I’m working on right now is called Emancipation to Exodus. Basically, from January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, through the period of the rest of the Civil War and the period known to us — misrepresented by Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind: Reconstruction, probably the most misunderstood period in American history. The collapse of Reconstruction; the reimposition — the brutal reimposition — of white supremacy in the South; the building of the monuments — but, more importantly, the enforcing of Jim Crow laws and using lynching as a terrorist device by terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, through the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in the late 1890s to codify this discrimination and to permit it to continue.
Then finally the African American, various leaders of various kinds, like W. E. B. Du Bois or Booker T. Washington or Ida B. Wells — even Marcus Garvey, who was a separatist — to figure out what the strategies were to survive. Then, finally, African Americans en masse beginning towards the end of the second decade of the 20th century an exodus, a Great Migration, it’s called, that took place over six decades: to move, as Richard Wright said, and enjoy “the warmth of other suns,” to get out of the brutality of Jim Crow in the South.
It’s a project I’ve been thinking about. It’s a subject that I’ve covered in many other films, but not as rigorously. Of course, lynching and the graphic images of that will be a huge part of it. It will be a moment-to-moment calibration, as it has been in every film, of what to use.
Once you put it in, it doesn’t mean you can’t take it out. What we do is we make, in our town, maple syrup here, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. That’s exactly our ratio, basically — 40 to 1 — in the films we make. That means at any given time you have 39 other gallons; for every hour of film, 39 other hours that is not going in.
We’re constantly putting in and putting back, painfully aware of — not a line in the sand. There’s no set moral compass; you just have to have one. Each thing has its own moment, so you know it when you see it.
When we finish and lock our films, we unlock it not to put our thumb on the scale but to remove that thumb: to change an image, to make it less graphic, to qualify, add the “perhaps” or “some might say” or “some said” or “it was thought,” just to help us qualify so that we don’t fall into that ethical quicksand that your excellent question is alluding to.
COWEN: Why are women so prominent in the early history of American photography — compared, say, to painting or sculpture?
BURNS: It’s interesting, I think, because at the beginning we’re recording ourselves, our families. The first one is a self-portrait. (Of course, being an American it would be a self-portrait.) But families are involved.
There’s so many ways in which we transcend — the Declaration of Independence did not apply to any women. It’s 144 years after the Declaration that women get the right to vote: basic thing. When the Declaration and the Constitution were there, they had no rights. But they were part of the landscape.
They are a majority of the population, and have been. What you have is the beginning of photographs being a much more democratic and accessible medium, that is going to be populated by the people who actually exist. I think it’s that that’s helpful to break down.
As you see in this book, there are lots of images of women from the earliest time involved in things like abolition, involved in things like slavery unions, involved in things like women’s suffrage, involved in just playing, having a good time on the beach in Massachusetts in your bloomer swimming suits dancing, or three gals stealing a cigarette in the early part of the 19th century.
This film is about darkness and light, about black and white — both in the photographic process but in the American dynamic: there are many Native Americans, there’s lots of landscapes of the beauty of the country. There’s lots of horrible signs of discrimination and war and death and suffering and grief.
And that’s us. That’s the story of us. I’ve been trying to tell that complicated history with my films, and this was an opportunity to stop and allow the viewer this time to be the director. That is to say, in most performance art, as film is, I set the time that you get to look at that photograph and you see what you’re able to see in that. If you want to spend an hour with one photograph in this book, you’re welcome to.
If you want to go through this over-amount of time, these photographs, and then hold your thumb in the back matter and go back and forth between the full page of the photograph, that might say “Gettysburg, 1863,” and then the description of people reading the list of the dead outside a newspaper in New York City just after the Battle of Gettysburg in July of ’63 — you can learn a lot more about the photograph, but in a different way. I first wanted the photographs to speak for themselves, un- . . . diminished — I guess, is the word — by words.
COWEN: Are Amish quilts the peak of American quilt making?
BURNS: No, I think there’s — stuff is going on. There’s a cooperative of African Americans in Alabama at a place in the bend in the Alabama River called Gee’s Bend, G–E–E. They still — in fact, one of my most favorite quilts was made (I violated my own stuff of collecting antique quilts) was made by a woman named Lucy Mingo, who’s in her eighties but still alive as far as I know. Several years ago, I bought a magnificent quilt.
I do like to point out something: I have behind me on the other end of the loft a beautiful Amish quilt. People like to talk in the 1930s about one of the epitomes of modernism is the bold colors and geometrical rectangles that the painter Piet Mondrian would do. That was an apotheosis of modernism at the time. This quilt I have, filled with bright, geometric rectangles, almost a neon red and a neon blue, is from the 1830s — 100 years before — from the people that we en-silo and entrap and discriminate against because we think of them as simple. They’ve chosen not to live with electricity and a lot of things.
We think they’re sort of frozen, and we don’t give them the artistic or the just basic human idea of having lives lived as full as we do because of the way they’ve chosen to live their lives, which is entirely their right. There’s another religious sect not too different from the Amish called the Mennonites. I’ve got on the opposing wall, on the other end of that dark loft, a Mennonite quilt, which is one of my favorites.
But I also have quilts that we know little about. I spend my life finding out the story. Most of my quilts that I collect are mysteries. You might have a name stitched into it: “Hannah Brooks” or something like that. You may be able to figure out a town record that she could be somewhere 18 or 21. Is she married? Did she make it with anyone else? Is it a solo project? How long did it take? What was life like? All of that is a mystery.
The quilts become, I think, a perfect evocation of who we are. Of course, in this case, dating back to the beginnings of our republic, these are made by women. Once again, this group of people who were considered incompetent to serve on a jury, incompetent to testify at a trial, who had no rights in marriage — if you came to your marriage rich from your family, your husband automatically owned that. If you divorced, you left with the clothes on your back: not your children, not any of the property you brought. All of that has begun to change, but you can see in the quilts a great evocation of who we are.
In fact, coincidentally, a touring exhibition location of some of my quilts published a beautiful book that came out in September about my quilts, called Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection. It’s as gorgeous in full color as I think this Our America book is, and another way of getting at us in a nonverbal fashion. That’s an element I think that we too often distrust in our general accounting of things and need to trust for us to be healthier, not just as individuals or as families but as communities and states and countries and the world.
COWEN: What is it that quilts bring to bear on your conceptualization of the American experience that documentaries or a book of photographs do not? How does that all hang together?
BURNS: I would just remove from your question “conceptualization.” What I do all day, all night, seven days a week is I conceptualize the past. I’m always trying to figure it out, decipher how to tell the story, how to make sure that the telling of a story doesn’t in some way diminish. I’ve got a neon sign in my editing room down off the center of town, off the town green, that says in lowercase cursive — neon sign — it says, “it’s complicated.” Because there’s not a filmmaker on earth that doesn’t — if the scene’s working, doesn’t want to touch it.
But more often than not, the process of learning for us is to learn contradictory and complicating information. There’s undertow for every placid surface of the water. We’ve tried to work that in.
The quilts, though, are enigmatic and mysterious. I’m drawn to them for their design, their composition. Then you move in and you wonder what they’re doing and you see the details of the —
A quilt is about the stitching that is not immediately obvious. It’s not the things that hold the pieces together; it’s the stitching on top of that, the quilting that holds together the two sides of the quilt: the front (the art) and the backing, and then the batting in between (if it has it). And so they’re just wonderful mysteries, in the way a painting might be. For me, fabric is a way to get at an essence of a culture, even if it resists that kind of conceptualization.
It’s a relief for me. I can enjoy them. All the quilts came back from the touring exhibition, and down underneath me are maybe 40 quilts folded up and laid out on a big, long, 14-foot table.
To me, it’s like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. To me, it’s like looking at a giant sequoia. To me, it’s like one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Somebody will say, “Where did this come from?” I’ll say, “Well, we think it’s Pennsylvania, Lancaster County, from the 1870s, but we don’t know. But isn’t it beautiful?” Yes. You take it out; you hold it up. It may be American flags and crosses made by Red Cross nurses in World War I. Just incredibly poignant and beautiful and elegant and simple, but so moving.
That thing behind me is not a quilt; it’s not a flag — it represents our flag, but that’s a Navajo blanket, which I got because that has to have meaning upon meaning upon meaning. What is it to accept the people who have taken away most of your land and to build this heavy, thick thing that represents the durable symbol of that country, and yet the history of you with that country is so complex and so fraught and so filled with that kind of undertow?
That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with the book of photographs, where with the minimal captions — you can find out more if you want in the back material, as I said. But you can also just let it be, and you can understand and perhaps intuit, which is perhaps the opposite of conceptualization, intuit something that reflects or touches something emotional rather than necessarily intellectual.
It can do that as well, of course, and we can conceptualize and talk about that for hours. But at the same time, there is that moment of reception that you feel in relationship to something that you love: in your faith, in your art, in your family, in your friends — the people that mean something. I’m kind of interested as much in the mysterious and the unexplainable, as I spend most of my professional life trying to explain.
COWEN: Who is the most underrated American painter, in your view?
BURNS: It’ll be somebody no one knows: a man named William Segal, who I got to know at the end of his life who was a painter by avocation. He made some really startling portraits — self-portraits — and still lifes. I began through friendship to collect some. After he passed away, he had already — he and his wife had given me a couple dozen of the paintings and then asked if I would be an executor. So I’m always trying to get people to wake up to him.
Having said that, I don’t know; you know . . . Lewis Mumford said each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of the past that gives the present permanent — gives the present more meaning and helps us understand it. What you see is that things get lost to time. There wasn’t a school kid at the end of the 19th century that couldn’t recite from memory George Washington’s speeches and knew everything about George Washington.
Now you ask a kid and they go, “First president: never told a lie.” (Not true.) “Chopped down the cherry tree.” (Not true.) “Threw a coin across the Potomac.” (Not possible.) The mythology has grown up and encrusted him. I’m working on a history of the American Revolution right now that is trying to make him a real and dimensional figure. The joke is “George Washington slept here” now. It wasn’t a joke before! If he spent the night in Morristown — he spent a winter in Morristown, New Jersey. Or he was over here; he spent a night in this house outside Monmouth Courthouse — this was hugely important. I want to try to return fair value.
What I’m saying is that, with regard to your question about paintings, there’s going to be periods when somebody will rise up and periods when it will be less fashionable. It’s a very interesting process to watch. We tend to think of the past, understandably, as fixed, but it’s not. It’s incredibly malleable, not just as new information arises but as our perspectives change.
I like to tell people with our Vietnam film, if I’d made it 10 years after the fall of Saigon, in 1985 — America was in a recession. Japan was ascendant; we are talking about everything shifting over to the Pacific Rim — Vietnam would be the symbol of our decline. If I’d waited 20 years, to 1995, when America was the lone superpower, we’re in the middle of what was then the biggest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States. We had just won the First Gulf War with one arm tied behind our back with a coalition of dozens of other countries — we were in clover. Vietnam would have significance, but would no longer be the symbol of our decline.
You wait 30 years, to 2005: we’re bogged down in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and comparisons are being made to Vietnam. All of a sudden Vietnam has a new centrality. Nothing about the Vietnam War has changed. It’s only we’re on a different mountaintop.
We made ours in the teens (mostly), and it came out in 2017. It was speaking exactly to the present, and yet it was benefited from kind of averaging all those different perspectives. It may be the future that’s pretty set — we may not know what it is! — but it’s the past that remains, I think, delightfully, marvelously, wonderfully malleable.
There’s nothing definitive. Nothing I’ve ever done is definitive, nor should it be. It is always, as my principal collaborator, Geoffrey Ward, says, a conversation to be had. What you’re offering is as comprehensive a view as you (subjective) — just as this book is called Our America, which is so presumptuous: it’s my America. Right? I’m sharing it with a spirit that we’ve lost a sense of what we share in common. I want to share with you the complexity of my country and be able in these times of not just division but of the myopia that comes from self-selecting your information — how complex we are and how rich we are for that complexity: good, bad, and indifferent.
COWEN: Does baseball have a future?
BURNS: Yes, of course it does. It’s the greatest game —
COWEN: Isn’t it too slow? People will stop watching?
BURNS: I just don’t get this. I am a big fan of football — much bigger fan of baseball. The games last about the same time. And, as George Will said of football, it has two of America’s worst features: It is violence punctuated by frequent committee meetings.
If you are a lover of baseball, which is the best game by far ever invented — there’s no clock; the defense holds the ball (tell me another sport in which the defense holds the ball); that it isn’t the ball scoring or the puck or the pigskin: it’s the person. Every park is different; every other place is uniform. It’s just got so many things in it that are about speed and infinite, chess-like combinations that I just love it. And you can live within it.
It’s just — we’ve been told over and over again that this election has been stolen, so people believe it. We have been told over and over again that this is a boring game. Neither are true.
COWEN: Does jazz have a future?
BURNS: Yes! Yes. It used to be more than 75 percent of American popular music (that would be at the height of the swing era in the late ’30s and early ’40s). Then as bebop came in, just as representative painting moved to abstract expressionism (it’s a function of the atomic era), then you get into more esoteric things. As Harry Truman famously said of something, it looked like scrambled eggs — and a lot of people didn’t go into it.
So jazz moved to a different place. But it’s always the American art form: it’s the one we’ve invented that is recognized around the world, even if we don’t recognize it at times. Things change. As I’m saying, these habits and things matter. The fact that it isn’t malleable is part of life. It all happens and all decays.
There’s never been a period like the popular American songbook of the ’20s and the ’30s and the ’40s: nobody writes lyrics like that anymore. These are just spectacular combinations of words and wordplay, about love. (Now things are reduced to just slander and profanity as the substitutes.) “These Foolish Things” or “Let’s Do It” by Cole Porter or things like that. Nothing’s there — but they’re there.
Mechanical reproduction permits us to live with Louis Armstrong, whose heyday in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and ’60s — it’s like he’s still here.
COWEN: How would you improve the New York Times crossword puzzle?
BURNS: I am a devotee of it, and I do it (or I used to do it, pre-COVID) in ink every single day. And I go to bed every night doing the anthologies of it in ink. But I do it online so I’m not chopping down as many trees as I used to to do it.
Monday’s easy. Today, Tuesday (we’re recording on a Tuesday), is pretty easy too. It gets more complicated: Saturday is the hardest. Sunday’s the biggest.
I don’t know what to do. I read various blogs after I finish the puzzle in which people are criticizing them, and I’m just going, “I enjoyed it. It’s OK!” It’s just like film criticism. When I was in high school, I used to write a lot of film criticism. As soon as I started making films in college, I didn’t buy another film book and I don’t write criticisms of stuff. It’s so hard to complete a film. If you’re a crossword-puzzle collector, yes, maybe it wasn’t as good as last Friday’s, which was so super tough or so super interesting or so super fun — but I just do it.
It’s part of my interior stuff. It’s like somebody who has that cup of coffee in the morning that they just need and love. That’s my relationship to crossword puzzles. I wouldn’t touch them. I admire Will Shortz, who is the current editor of it, and I’ve talked to him a couple times, met him once or twice.
I do them — I’m pretty good at them. And everybody tells me, “Oh, you should go to this competition,” and I go, “That would ruin it.” It’s just like — my four daughters have spent my entire life telling me, “Go on Jeopardy.” I go, “Uh-uh. I love sitting with you and getting all the answers.” I don’t want to go there and ruin the experience by competing for it.
COWEN: How do you think the art of making documentaries is most likely to be next disrupted?
BURNS: Well, I think that the —
COWEN: The metaverse? artificial intelligence? TikTok? What will do it?
BURNS: Well, I think it’s going to be a combination of those things. What you’ve just referred to are technological changes, and I think the proliferation has had a profound effect.
But at the end of the day, storytelling is storytelling is storytelling. And I can tell you that when Samuel F. B. Morse developed the telegraph, people were like, “Oh, this is the death of words. Nobody’s going to write letters anymore.” We’ve undergone all these huge technological changes, but at the end of the day, we all, whether we are college professors writing papers for journals, whether we are kids reporting on what happened at our day or documentary filmmakers trying to understand Reconstruction — we’re bound by the same laws of storytelling: Aristotelian poetics.
Big, fancy-schmancy, $10 phrase — but it just refers to Aristotle’s Poetics, which is an essay that people either read in high school or in college (or somehow avoid to), but it tells you there’s a beginning and a middle and an end. There’s characters and they have to have development. There’s protagonists and there’s antagonists, and there’s a climax and there’s a denouement. There are no real laws, but everybody knows how it works. We have to learn, with each of the ways we tell our stories, how to tell that story.
Yes, we’ll be bombarded. I’m usually very conservative about it: I waited a decade after most of my colleagues switched to computer editing around 1990. I didn’t do it till 2001. And while they had long since abandoned shooting actual film, I didn’t abandon it until 2011 and I still will shoot film now and then to add to the thing. What I didn’t want was the technological tail to be wagging the dog. I didn’t want to be so seduced by the fancy-schmancy stuff that you can do that you miss the fact that the introduction is great, but so does the end of the 10th episode of a 20-hour film? That’s been really important to me: that every single moment have the same attention given to it.
That’s what we’ve maintained. Part of it is living in rural New Hampshire and having the time to do it and being insulated from the vagaries of things that attack that. Some of it is being wholly suspicious of technologies that might alter stuff in a way that you didn’t want it to.
But at the end of the day, if you don’t know how to tell a story, it just doesn’t work. Whether it’s YouTube with a kitten and a ball of string or an 18-hour series on the history of the Vietnam War — or a gigantic three-volume book about Winston Churchill, say, or whatever it might be.
COWEN: How much of your time do you have to put into managing content, distribution, marketing — things other than actually making the documentaries?
BURNS: I do a lot. I’d say first and foremost, the thing that I complain about a lot but I don’t really mind is the fundraising. It’s just — it’s hard. We get it from a variety: individuals of wealth; corporations — Bank of America has supported us for over 16 years — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; government granting agencies; foundations — Arthur Vining Davis, Park Foundation — folks like that.
Individuals have funded us: David Rubenstein, the patriotic philanthropist; Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine from Boston, who have contributed more than anyone to our work over the years and created a prize in my name with the Library of Congress that funds other documentary filmmakers having the hard time that we all do with that last final $200,000 to finish the film, to pay the rights for the photographs that we were talking about.
PBS: I made my decision; I’m happy with that decision, but they don’t have the marketing budgets and the ad budgets to do that. So it’s shoe leather. Whether it’s going to 21 cities on a jazz tour, all in succession, or traveling all across the country, it’s tough but you do it and you feel like a politician with a stump speech that you give five or six times a day and you meet with the local PBS station for lunch and they’re big donors. You go to the local editorial board of the newspaper. You go on TV. You talk to reporters. You do an evening event with the public. Then you move on to the next city and hope that you’ve gotten some interest piqued among people in a media environment with literally, now with the internet, millions of options.
How do you stand out and distinguish? It’s part of it. I would say the three things I love the most are shooting — when you see something, either live or an old photograph or even in an interview, where you go, “Man, this is going to be in the film; I know it.” Then when you’re editing (because nothing edits itself), where you rewrite something or you’ve switched something around or you found a new way to tell it — there’s an exhilaration.
Then, finally, the question you asked — is I like the evangelical part. I love the fact that once we’re done with a film, it’s in a way no longer ours: it’s yours. I want to go out and be that preacher who’s converting, not the congregation or the choir, but going out and trying to get new converts to say, “This is an important subject. I think we told this story in an interesting way. Do you agree? Here are some clips from it. Please watch when it’s on in September.”
COWEN: Let’s say you meet a young person and they want to become a major documentary maker. Other than just intelligence, hard work — what quality or qualities do you look for in that person to see if they can do it?
BURNS: Part of the answer is in your question, the way you framed it. I apologize in advance and say I’m going to tell you that there are two things, and they’re platitudes. The first one is Socratic: know yourself. Film is incredibly, apparently glamorous, and people do not realize the hard work involved or what’s involved in having the discipline of consistency and of hard work to do that.
To me, there’s no shame, I tell people, in saying — you say you’re 18 years old or you’re 22 years old; you want to be a filmmaker: you got to be able to have some means testing to go, “You know what, I don’t actually have something to say,” or “I don’t want to do this. I’d rather write a symphony or tend a garden or raise a child.” These are all admirable things to do. Having that courage to be able to look at yourself and understand what you can and cannot do.
Then, finally, perseverance. There are a lot more filmmakers, I’m sure, smarter than me; they just didn’t have the stick-to-itiveness to just keep going. My first film, on the Brooklyn Bridge: I was in my twenties. I looked like I was 12. People would say, “This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No. Ha ha ha.”
I used to keep all the rejections for one one-hour film that filled two three-ring binders, each three or four inches thick, with literally hundreds and hundreds of rejections from that film. Used to sit on my desk to remind me of what I overcame and was able finally to do it. Moving up here: We calculated that I was paid less than 2 cents an hour over the five-plus years it took to get it made, in large measure because no one would take a flyer. Back in those days, you weren’t looking for a half-million-dollar grant or a million-dollar grant, you were looking for 1,000 bucks or $2,500 to just round it out.
COWEN: What makes you so well suited to work together with Lynn Novick?
BURNS: Well, Lynn has been one of many colleagues that I’ve worked with for dozens of years. It’s really great. We’ve made a lot of films together.
Sarah Botstein, Dayton Duncan, Geoffrey Ward, who I mentioned. I think it’s the fact that we’ve never yelled; I’ve never yelled. This isn’t brain surgery. I think even in brain surgery, it doesn’t make sense to yell if somebody hands you the wrong implement. You just — you have to do. We’re making documentary films. It’s not the end of the world, and so we want to do it.
The people who end up working with me — in Lynn’s case it’s been a little bit over 30 years; in Sarah Botstein’s case, it’s been 25 years; in Geoff Ward’s, it’s been over 40 that we’ve been working together. Dayton Duncan is over 30. I have editors who are 45 years I’ve been working with — editors who’ve retired now. There’s a sense of process and a sense of yielding to the process.
I have a couple of skills. I often have lots of credits, from music director to executive producer to producer to writer to director, whatever it might be — cinematographer — all of those things I do. But the only one that really matters is that when things are darkest, I kind of know what the next step is. Even if that next step, the next morning I go, “Whoa, that was not so smart; let’s try this.” Everybody’s in this together. It’s gloriously collaborative.
Lynn has just been one of the very, very special collaborations that I’ve had. We’re still working together and will continue through this decade to work together. But I’ve kind of kicked her out and up and said, “Look, a project that I was going to do with you, with me as the boss — I’m just going to step back and be the executive producer, and you do it.” She did that on a film called College behind Bars with Sarah Botstein, where I was executive producer.
We were going to do a big thing on the history of crime and punishment. That’s now Lynn’s. Sarah’s not working on it. Geoff Ward’s not writing it. She’s doing it, and I’ll serve as executive producer and help her as much as I can, but she won’t really need my help.
COWEN: Do you find selfies interesting as photography?
BURNS: Yes, I guess — it kind of depends. They do, as I was suggesting earlier, represent a diminished value to a photograph, but there’s something really great. I did a film on cancer and I ended up in a lot of hospitals talking to a lot of people, including some very young people who were sick. Sometimes the immortalization of that moment is to just the intimacy of a selfie and the two heads put together, in which the background is secondary or tertiary or not even important at all, but it’s just the witness of two people being together.
That can be really important — and yet we also know the way in which it represents distraction and a lack of presence in the moment. It’s saying that the moment’s important, but in some ways it’s forgetting the moment. It’s like the people who take pictures of their food and then post it. Do they actually taste the food? [laughs] I mean, these are important things.
Susan Sontag wrote an amazing essay called On Photography in which she understands the negative parts of it. You take a photograph: you’ve appropriated something from somebody. And Jerome Liebling, my teacher, would have said you are required to initiate a reciprocity as you take that photograph. That helps to make the exchange more equal and less — either narcissistic, in the case of selfies, or all this constant posing that we see people do. Teenagers, particularly as they’re ready to post on Instagram or TikTok or whatever it might be — all places I’m blissfully ignorant of.
Social media is not social. If you’ve ever been in a room of adults (let’s not blame it on teenagers), adults or teenagers, and they’re all on their phones — they’re not relating, in a way. They’re tangentially relating. I’m interested, as [Henri] Cartier-Bresson said (the great French photographer), in the decisive moment.
COWEN: I’m happy to mention your book again, which I recommend highly: Our America: A Photographic History by Ken Burns.
And last short question: What’s the next thing you’ll do? The next 17 things — but pick one.
BURNS: We’re finishing a film on the American buffalo: a great parable of de-extinction. We’re doing a history of the American Revolution. We’re doing a history of Reconstruction, but extending the borders of that.
We have my daughter, one of my producing teams, and her husband in Florence for a year: We’re making our first non-American topic, on Leonardo da Vinci. We’re doing a history of LBJ and the Great Society. And we’re collecting interviews for a few other films that may or may not make it to a formal thing, but we’ll certainly hand off to the next generation if we don’t make it: to make films on Martin Luther King and other, I think, really, really interesting subjects.
I know what I’m doing for the rest of the decade. That’s either a glory or a prison — or more than likely, Tyler, both. [laughs]
COWEN: Ken Burns, thank you very much.
BURNS: My pleasure.
Photo credit: Michael Avedon