Ken Burns is
one of public television's most celebrated and prolific producers.
He has already fashioned a record of nine major PBS (Public Broadcasting
System) specials, addressing a wide range of topics from American
history, such as The Brooklyn Bridge (PBS, 1982), The Shakers:
Hands to Work, Hearts to God (PBS, 1985), The Statue of Liberty
(PBS, 1985), Huey Long (PBS, 1986), Thomas Hart Benton
(PBS, 1989), The Congress (PBS, 1989), The Civil War (PBS,
1990), Empire of the Air (PBS, 1992), and Baseball
(PBS, 1994) which have all won various awards and recognitions from
both professional and scholarly organizations and at international
Burns is a 1975
graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he
studied under still photographers, Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes,
and received a degree in film studies and design. Upon graduation,
he and two of his college friends started Florentine Films and struggled
for a number of years doing freelance assignments, finishing a few
short documentaries before beginning work in 1977 on a film based
on David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge (1972). Four
years later, they completed The Brooklyn Bridge, which won
several honors including an Academy Award nomination, thus ushering
Burns into the ambit of public television. While editing The Brooklyn
Bridge in 1979, Burns moved Florentine Films to Walpole, New Hampshire,
surviving on as little as "$2,500 one year to stay independent."
Much about Ken
Burns's career defies conventional wisdom. He operates his own independent
company in a small New England village more than four hours north
of New York City, hardly a crossroads in the highly competitive
and often insular world of corporately funded, PBS-sponsored productions.
His television career is a popular and critical success story in
an era when the historical documentary generally holds little interest
for most Americans. His PBS specials so far are also strikingly
out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of
most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques
that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these
constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual
The Brooklyn Bridge and continuing through Baseball,
Burns has intricately blended narration with what he calls his "chorus
of voices," meaning readings from personal papers, diaries, and
letters; interpretive commentaries from on-screen experts, usually
historians; his "rephotographing" technique which closely examines
photographs, paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, and other artifacts
with a movie camera; all backed with a musical-track that features
period compositions and folk music. The effect of this collage of
techniques is to create the illusion that the viewer is being transported
back in time, literally finding an emotional connection with the
people and events of America's past.
At first, it
may appear that he has embraced a wide assortment of subjects--a
bridge, a 19th century religious sect, a statue, a demagogue, a
painter, the congress, the Civil War, radio, and the national pastime--but
several underlying common denominators bind this medley of Americana
together. Burns's body of work casts an image of America which is
built on consensus and is celebratory in nature, highlighting the
nation's ideals and achievements. He suggests, moreover, that "television
can become a new Homeric mode," drawing narrative parameters which
are epic and heroic in scope. The epic form tends to celebrate a
people's shared tradition in sweeping terms, while recounting the
lives of national heroes is the classical way of imparting values
by erecting edifying examples for present and future generations.
In this way,
Ken Burns's chronicles are populated with seemingly ordinary men
and women who rise up from the ranks of the citizenry to become
paragons of national (and occasionally transcendent) achievement,
always persisting against great odds. The Brooklyn Bridge,
for example, described by the film's "chorus of voices" as "a work
of art" and "the greatest feat of civil engineering in the world,"
is the "inspiration" of a kind of "Renaissance man," John A. Roebling,
who died as the building of the bridge was beginning, and his son,
Washington Roebling, who finished the monument 14 years later through
his own dogged perseverance and courage, despite being bedridden
in the process.
Along with being
an outstanding documentarian and popular historian, Burns, like
all important cultural voices, is also a moralist. Taken as a whole
his series of films stand as morality tales, drawing upon epic events,
landmarks, and institutions of historical significance. They are
populated by heroes and villains who allegorically personify certain
virtues and vices in the national character as understood through
the popular mythology of our modern memory. At the beginning of
Empire of the Air, for instance, Jason Robards narration
explains how Lee DeForest, David Sarnoff, and Edwin H. Armstrong
"were driven to create [radio] by ancient qualities, idealism and
imagination, greed and envy, ambition and determination, and genius."
And Burns himself describes Huey Long as "a tragic almost Shakespearean
story of a man who started off good, went bad, and got killed for
Ken Burns is
best known, of course, for his 11-hour documentary series, The
Civil War. The overwhelming popularity of this program, aired
in September 1990 made him a household name. Much of the success
of the series must be equated to the extent with which Burns makes
this 130 year-old conflict immediate and comprehensible to a contemporary
audience. He adopted a similar strategy with Baseball. "Baseball,"
he says, "is as much about American social history as it is
about the game," as it examines such issues as immigration, assimilation,
labor and management conflicts, and, most importantly, race relations.
Ken Burns explains that "Jackie Robinson and his story are sort
of the center of gravity for the film, the Gettysburg Address and
Emancipation Proclamation rolled into one." This 19-hour history
of the sport debuted over nine evenings in September 1994, lasting
nearly double the length and costing twice the budget ($7 million)
of The Civil War.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Berg/ General Motors/ Florentine Films
is now executive producer on two additional projects for PBS. He
has next committed to a 10-hour, seven-part multicultural history
of the American West which is scheduled to inaugurate the public
television season during the fall of 1996. He also has an agreement
with General Motors to oversee a series entitled, American Lives,
in which various documentarians, including himself, will film brief
biographies of important historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson,
Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain. His involvement with American
Lives ensures that Burns will be a fixture at PBS into the next
his long-standing affiliation with non-commercial television in
the U. S., Ken Bums still remembers his boyhood dream of becoming
the next John Ford. As he recalls, "I had always wanted to be a
Hollywood director. I think as I look back now in retrospect, I
realize how my whole body of work is a kind of documentary version
of Ford--that is a real love for American mythology." Burns is once
again exploring a subject that is intimately related to John Ford's
filmic legacy in The West. Ford was a visual poet of the
first order; he was also a populist, stressing a respect for the
past and the lessons it can teach. Ken Bums shares a similar style
and outlook in his documentaries: "All my work is animated by the
question 'who are we?' that is to say who are we as a people? What
does it mean to be an American? And all of these questions are not
necessarily answered by these investigations as the questions are
themselves deepened." In this respect, no one has ever done a better
job of probing and revivifying the past for more Americans through
the power and reach of prime-time television than Ken Burns.
. Born in Brooklyn, New York, 29 July, 1953. Educated at Hampshire
College, B.A. in film studies and design, 1975. Married Amy Stechler,
1982, children: Sarah and Lily. Worked as a cinematographer for
the BBC, Italian television, and others; president and owner of
Florentine Films, since 1975; producer, cinematographer, and director
of documentaries since 1977. Member: Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences; Society of American Historians; American Antiquarian
Society; Massachusetts Historical Society; Walpole Society for Bringing
to Justice Horse Thieves and Pilferers. Honorary degrees include:
University of New Hampshire, L.H.D., Notre Dame College, Litt.D.,
Amherst College, Litt.D., 1991, Pace University, L.H.D., Bowdoin
College, L.H.D., 1991, and CUNY, Ph.D. Recipient: Christopher Awards,
1973, 1987, 1990; Erik Barnouw Awards for Brooklyn Bridge and Huey
Long; CINE Golden Eagle Awards for Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers,
Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, Thomas Hart Benton, The Congress,
The Civil War, and Empire of the Air; Producer's Guild of America's
Producer of the Year, 1990; two Emmy Awards, 1991; People's Choice
Award, 1991. Address: P.O. Box 613, Walpole, New Hampshire 03608.
(producer, director, cinematographer)
1985 The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (also co-writer)
1986 Huey Long (also co-writer)
1985 The Statue of Liberty
1989 The Congress
1989 Thomas Hart Benton
1990 Lindbergh (executive producer only)
1990 The Civil War (also co-writer)
1991 The Songs of the Civil War
1992 Empire of the Air
An Illustrated History (with Geoffrey Ward). New York: Knopf,
Civil War: An Illustrated History (with Ric Burns and Geoffrey
Ward). New York: Knopf, 1990.
Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (with Amy Stechler Burns).
New York: Aperture Foundation, 1987.
Cripps, Thomas. "Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns."
American Historical Review (Washington, D.C.), June 1995.
Gary. "Ken Burns's America: Style, Authorship, and Cultural Memory."
Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.),
"Ken Burns's American Dream: Histories-for-TV from Walpole, New
Hampshire." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1994.
Maker Opposes Disney theme Park." The New York Times, 20
Larry. "One Man's 'Civil War' is Another's Foundation." Variety
(Los Angeles), 21 September 1992.
David. "History Composed with Film." Film Comment (New York),
Tibbetts, John C. "The Incredible Stillness of Being: Motionless
Pictures in the Films of Ken Burns." American Studies (Lawrence,
Kansas), Spring 1996.