The Current·Q&A

Ken Burns uses the magic of old photos to tell the story of America

The detail in an old back-and-white photo can be magical, and can teach us a great deal about history, according to filmmaker Ken Burns.

The filmmaker's new photography book is titled Our America: A Photographic History

The Statue of Liberty is seen in this photo on its day of dedication on Oct. 28, 1886 in New York Harbor. (Library of Congress)

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The detail in an old back-and-white photo can be magical, and can teach us a great deal about history, according to filmmaker Ken Burns. 

Burns, known for films and TV miniseries such as The Civil War, Country Music, and Baseball, has put together a photography book called Our America: A Photographic History, which is made up of some of the photos he's used in his films throughout the years.

He told The Current's Matt Galloway that the photos tell the history of the United States — and that story isn't black-and-white, but grey. Here's part of that conversation.

You grew up in a house that loved photography and had a darkroom in it. Tell me about your father's darkroom. 

My first memory, literally that first little strip of film in your brain lodged way, way, way back in the files, is a little strip of film of me sort of winding my way between the stud wall of a darkroom my dad was building in our basement in a tract house in a development at 827 Lehigh Road in Newark, Del. 

He was the only anthropologist in the state of Delaware. And he was also an amateur, but very avid, still photographer. And the next memory, which is sort of spliced next to that first one, is of me in his arms in that eerie red light with the weird smells and watching that magic, that alchemy of a photograph.

And in all of my work, even when there is an abundance of moving pictures from recent history like Vietnam War or [the] Holocaust or World War II, whatever it might be over the last decades, the still photograph is still the basic building block of everything that we do. 

This picture of a boy in front of a car in New York City was taken by Ken Burns' mentor, Jerome Liebling. (Jerome Liebling)

Can I go back to a word that you just used, which was the magical element of this? Those of us who are old enough to remember what it was like in the darkroom, remember that alchemy. That something didn't exist, and then it appears on that piece of paper. You say that photography is still magical to you? 

It is, indeed. I think there's only one thing more magical, which is the birth of a child. You know, you're in a room and there's X number of adults and then nobody's come in, but there's another human being there.

The photography process, the old process of development is like that, where you're there, there's a kind of an intimacy, you're dealing with a lot of blank paper [and] photographic paper, and then all of a sudden, in a couple of barrels of chemicals, there emerges a picture. And that's incredibly magical for me and always has been.

You say in the introduction to this book that you don't just look at a photograph, you listen to it as well. What does that mean? 

I had originally wanted to be a feature filmmaker — you know, kind of [like] John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks. I saw my dad cry at a movie after my mom died, and he hadn't cried when she was sick, or when she died, or at the funeral. But he cried in a movie, and I just got it. I said, Oh, that's what I want to do. 

But I ended up going to Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where everyone reminded me that in Hollywood they call it "The Industry," and maybe you didn't want to be involved in industrial production, assembly lines and that sort of stuff. 

This photo taken in 1935 shows a blind street musician in West Memphis, Ark. (Library of Congress)

And all my teachers were documentary still photographers, including Elaine Mayes and my mentor Jerome Liebling. And they reminded me that there is as much drama in what is and what was. 

So as I began to develop my own professional life, I began to see that as I was trying to will these old photographs alive, trusting that they had a past and a future, that the cart and the horse were rumbling through the frame, that I was animating them and attempting to reanimate them — it required listening to them. Did that horse whinny? Did the cartwheels make a noise? 

Why, in the sweep of the work that you're doing, did you want to put this book together now? 

It's very funny. I collect quilts. In all my work, I spend lots of time finding out what happened and knowing, if not definitively, then as much as we can know about something.

The quilts that I collect I have to let go of. They're beautiful. But it may be signed, "Hannah." But you don't know her last name. You don't know exactly when she lived. You don't know how old she was, whether she worked with somebody else. Is it a teenager? Is it a young wife? Is it, you know, a widow? Who is this person? And I have to accept the not knowing of it. 

And that led me back to the fact and I've been incubating this project for 15 years at least, where I wanted to go back to the respect that we used to give to a single image in, say, a photography book, like an aperture monograph. 

This photograph shows aerial view of participants in the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963 in front of the Lincoln Memorial. (Library of Congress)

I wanted to arrange it chronologically from the first self-portrait … in 1839, all black and white, through more or less the recent present. Up to now, but more impressionistic [of the] the last 30 years. Every state represented, that was one of my things. 

And basically all of the films I've done, but no neon sign saying, "Hey, that's my film on the Civil War," but just a set of collections that would try to return full value to the cliche, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

Then, of course, in the back of the book, we have thumbnails of every one of the photographs you've just seen, and then a pretty lengthy prose description. Who's the photographer? What happened? What's going on with the photograph? What's going on with photography? 

But the first thing is to let these photographs speak to you directly and to look at the whole kind of whole panorama of America. 

And it's not just good and bad. It's also beautiful, and it's sorrowful, and it's ugly, and it's poignant and it's carefree. And it's got all sorts of dynamics that I think we tend to in a binary media culture and in a binary computer world, think that it's only black-or-white. And it's of course not. It's always shades of grey. 

Produced by Howard Goldenthal. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.


Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at

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