Ken Burns: I’ve been passionately interested in how my country works and each project we take is, I think, revealing of sort of the interior of our country in interesting ways. In some ways, the easier way is to say that we’ve made the same film over and over again, asking one deceptively simple question - who are we? In institutions like baseball or jazz or searing events like the Civil War or the Second World War, in biographies of important Americans like Mark Twain and Frank Lloyd Wright, Huey Long, you learn something. You don’t ever answer that question, but you deepen it with each successive project.
Jo Reed: That was documentary film-maker Ken Burns, Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how Art Works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
For more than 30 years, Ken Burns has been making documentary films. Since the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Burns has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made about different facets of America – from the Civil War to World War II; from baseball to jazz. Using archival photographs and musical motifs, Ken Burns creates films that tell us stories about our country’s past and its culture His last project is called The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. When the television series was first broadcast, Ken Burns stopped by the studio here at the NEA to talk with me about it. I began our conversation by asking him, why a documentary about the national parks.
Ken Burns: We don’t mean to intrude on Mr. Jefferson’s ideas, but once you started a country based on at least the attempt to live out Jeffersonian principles of equality, you’d be hard pressed to find a better idea. For the first time in all of human history, land was set aside for everyone; not for kings or noblemen or the rich as all land had been disposed, but for everyone. And the story of how that takes place transcends a travelogue or a nature film, which is the traditional way we understand the national parks and instead engages the biographies of dozens and dozens of people from every conceivable background who struggle against those forces of development, those inquisitive and extractive forces that are always with us, that want to dam a river, that want to cut down a stand of trees, that want to mine a canyon and they said, “No.” And the national parks are the fruits of that desire to save some glimpse, some portion of the primeval existence so that we would be able to remind ourselves how lucky we were to fall upon this beautiful garden of Eden of a continent.
Jo Reed: You know, it’s probably my ignorance, but when I began to watch your documentary, I really did assume we were pretty much going to start with Teddy Roosevelt.
Ken Burns: Everyone does that and that’s completely understandable because I think they reach our historical consciousness, that is to say that national parks make an impression on us as a result of the energetic, vigorous presidency of Theodore Roosevelt that, you know, added new parks, that created the wildlife refuge system, that had a kind of joyous relationship with nature and that’s not terrible. He was able to contain in one single lifetime the nascent conversation movement. But, the original impulse was more spiritual than it was conservation oriented; spiritual in the sense that we were able to find God as Americans, free to not only exist politically govern ourselves, but to govern our religious lives, that we could find God more easily in cathedrals of nature than in those built by man following some dogmatic devotion imposed by others. This is Emersonian transcendentalism. This is the Hudson River and later Rocky Mountain School of Art and the national parks would follow after that. We had a kind of inferiority complex in the mid-19th century. Europeans were belittling us. We didn’t have the formal parks. We didn’t have the palaces and the cathedrals, but we did have these great natural areas and it was unspoiled.
Jo Reed: And we also had Niagara Falls.
Ken Burns: Well, you know, Niagara Falls was, you know, sort of our black sheep. Niagara Falls was the thing that they were also criticizing us for because it had been so commercialized. Every single viewpoint was run by some huckster who was overcharging you to get in. So, they looked and said, “Look, you took the one beautiful thing and you ruined it. Who are you people?” And I think it’s not coming out of that, but certainly it’s a large measure, that part of who we are was to say, you know, these parks can be our best sells. That’s what this is about.
Jo Reed: You begin with Abraham Lincoln and Yosemite. How was Abraham Lincoln instrumental in creating a park at Yosemite?
Ken Burns: Well, the first White people came in to Yosemite in 1851 with the sole purpose of dispossessing the native peoples there, this tribe called the Ahwahneechee and one of the fellows in the expedition sort of looked and just said, “Oh, my God. This is the most beautiful place on earth” and people began to hear about it and come back to this place. And, a senator from California in the middle of the Civil War named John Conness proposed a bill which passed the Senate and then the House which set aside this reservation and gave it to the state of California for its care. It was signed by Lincoln in the middle of just the worst, worst days of the Civil War as so many things were that changed/transform for the better the government’s activities in our own lives. You know, the Land-Grant College Act, the Homestead Act, lots of things happened in that tumultuous mid-19th century and Lincoln I think understood, as one of our commentators says, the dynamism of the United States was heading West, that’s that’s where the future lay. And then even though he would never get to this beautiful valley 3,000 miles away, I think somehow or we’d like to think somehow that Lincoln kind of understood what the parks would set in motion. Yosemite was given to the state of California for care and eight years later, the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, came into existence and the only reason why is that it was in a territory and there was no entity to give it to. And so, we created sort of accidentally the world’s first national park and later, Yosemite would come back into that fold.
Jo Reed: I do want to talk about John Muir whose quote opens your documentary. Tell us who he is.
Ken Burns: John Muir is a Scottish-born wanderer, a naturalist, a scientist and holy man in a way who comes into Yosemite and is completely transformed, that the Sierra Mountains, that’s redundant. The Sierra Nevada were the spectacular range of light that opened up his heart and he was able to then invest in his writings a sense of urgency about saving these places and convinced many other Americans that part of their birthright was the saving, the preservation of these places for the holiest as well as most scientific of reasons. He is the compelling spirit of this film. His biography takes over two of our six episodes and his spirit suffuses the rest. He has the first word and the last.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about Yellowstone because I was really impressed by people who simply weren’t able to comprehend what they saw there.
Ken Burns: Well, if Yosemite is God’s cathedral, then Yellowstone is God’s laboratory. It is the greatest collection of geothermal features, meaning geysers, fumaroles, boiling mud pots. So, the early mountain men, John Colter, who was with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and said as he saw civilization looming, “Ah, not for me,” went back up and stumbled across this place and nobody believed him. And then, Joe Meeks and Jim Bridger, other mountain men would describe in sometimes funny and sometimes very hilarious terms, you know, what they had seen at Yellowstone and nobody believed them. Another expedition submitted their findings to Lippincott Magazine in Philadelphia and they said, “I’m sorry. We don’t print fiction.” It was just not to be believed and it took until the 1870s and an official governmental expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden who was, you know, a geologist and surveyor for the United States government, to finally say, yeah, all of this was true and they had to take photographers and painters along - Thomas Moran, the painter, and William Henry Jackson, the photographer. And, we could finally bring back proof that, you know, water spouted in these great hundred foot geysers on a regular faithful basis, that there was all these, you know, mud pots and boiling places. It was just a wonderful land as they call it.
Jo Reed: It’s interesting how important both artists and photographers have been to the concept of national parks.
Ken Burns: Well, you know, it’s funny. Art has a role to play. Tolstoy I think it was said that “art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another.” And in the case of the history of the national parks, it’s been so interesting that from the early Bierstadt paintings of Yosemite to the photographs of Jackson and the paintings of Mora, George Catlin himself, a great western painter, was the first one to propose a kind of peoples’ park, a nation’s park and was ignore, that artists had been there. They’ve been what would be an amanuensis. They’ve been that liaison between the reality of the parks, which everyone should have, and those folks who didn’t believe they existed, didn’t understand the full beauty of them. The art was great. They were instrumental. Sometimes the photographs were hung in the halls of Congress and helped to convince people to vote for the setting aside of these places. Later on, Ansel Adams would prove how seminal and responsible art is to showing the glories of the world. So, they’re not substitute for the real experience, but they can be that bridge that might lure you. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a paraplegic, helped create Kings Canyon, a roadless wilderness national park during his time in office based solely on the photographs of Ansel Adams. He would never have been able to get there given the fact that he was a paraplegic. There was no way he could possibly experience the glories of Kings Canyon, but he could understand them. And I think we’re hoping in some small way our film drives people to the national parks, that they see the beauty still like Plato’s cave, just mere shadows and reflections, but be drawn inexorably to the real thing.
Jo Reed: Ok, how do you begin a project like The National Parks? What’s your first step?
Ken Burns: Well, mostly it was for Dayton Duncan who was the writer and day-to-day producer is to begin scope out the resources, to begin to travel to the parks, to hear the stories, to figure out how to fashion a narrative, to understand where the archival legacy is there and then for us to go back to film, to conduct the interviews, to write and rewrite and write again hundreds of pages of narration and to edit for years that material down. It’s a long process in which the research, which is traditionally in most productions a small, limited period, goes on from the beginning until the very end. I think that’s what distinguishes our work more than anything. The writing, which is also usually a fairly finite period, goes on from the beginning to the end. We’re always corrigible and that we may shoot well towards the end of editing because we can add something new, not something that we’ve forgotten, but just a way to supplement something or we gained a new understanding. And so, we’re constantly open to change. Our process is more free-floating than others.
Jo Reed: You know, Ken strikes me in this 24/7 world in which things move very rapidly, you continue to produce work that really demands our time.
Ken Burns: You know, in the end, the only thing we really have is our attention, the work that you’re proudest of, the relationships you care about the most and everyone benefitted for your sustained attention. And yet, we’ve been exalting a media culture in which first the label was the MTV generation, where the cuts were so quick that physiologically you could receive the information, but didn’t necessarily contain any meaning and all real meaning accrues in duration. So, you’re already at a loss there. Now, in YouTube, the same sort of thing; we think that everything can be communicated in two minutes, but meaning develops imperceptibly like the layers on a pearl and we need to be prepared to give of ourselves. We need to demand of those people who are demanding of us their attention that we do it well, that we tell a good story. But, you know, it’s not as dire as we rub our hands and say. You know, millions and millions of kids line up every year or so to by a Harry Potter book that will take them two or three times as long to read as it does to watch the longest of our films and that tells you that there is this hunger and this appetite for that sustained attention - the hobbyist who goes down into the basement or out in the garage and just spends hours upon hours focused on a little thing, the person who hikes in contemplation of nature. There are lots of places where we sort of go against the sort of conventional wisdom, that we’ve lost ourselves in this busy, quick cutting, fast paced, no attention span world.
Jo Reed: Well, you’re also going against the grain in the way you film because you very much use still photography and you clearly value it – it’s an intrinsic part of all your work.
Ken Burns: It’s the DNA of what we do. I mean I’m interested in communicating how much complex information that single image has to say, that too often we want to do something, we want to cut away from it too quickly, we don’t trust it, but sometimes you sustain and you sustain. Think about something else. Think about a kiss, right? That’s an intimate thing. You kiss really quickly, that’s nice, but a long kiss is really nice.
Jo Reed: That’s a great comparison. Everything you do, every subject that you focus on is uniquely American - the Civil War is, obviously our tragedy. Baseball is an American sport. Jazz is America’s music. Even with World War II you focused on America’s part in it…
Ken Burns: Everything we’ve done is America. That’s all I’m interested in doing, and even World War II. I understood that there was something universal about the experiences of ordinary people, that too often, World War II films were distracted by a focus on celebrity generals and politicians, by statistics and strategy and armaments and by the evil of the enemy and I just wanted to know what it was like for a 19-year-old boy to land at Omaha Beach or at Palau in the Pacific and how that influenced his life and his family and what the folks back home who were worried about him. Those were, that was an American perspective, but it was universal. The rest of the films are in the same vein. They’re all looking for something that is uniquely American, but at the end, universally human.
Jo Reed: I was just thinking that’s exactly what you did with the Civil War, except you’re looking at the boy who’s going to Shiloh.
Ken Burns: That’s exactly right and in the end, the reason why the series was so popular internationally, that it not only gave them an access to one of the formative moments in our history so that they could have a better grasp on the inscrutable people they call Americans, but that they understood the cost of war is the same everywhere and that that essentially The War was a sequel to The Civil War.
Jo Reed: You’re a storyteller in the work that you do. What made you decide that you wanted to tell America stories about itself?
Ken Burns: I don’t really know. I wanted to be a feature filmmaker growing up and then I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in the early 70s and my teachers reminded me quite correctly that there’s more drama in what is and what was than anything of the human imagination. But, the choice of American history, I’m completely untrained and untutored in it. I think it was just a place where I could express my art. I feel so fortunate that early on in my life I had that intersection of form and content, that I knew exactly the medium in which I wanted to express myself, I knew also that I had something to say and that I knew that the best way to do it was through American history even though the last course I took was in 11th grade, you know, when they hold a gun to your head and make you take it.
Jo Reed: The Civil War took you five years to complete and it had great critical success and popular acclaim. What was it like for you when you came out of the other side of that experience?
Ken Burns: Well, you know, I live in a little village in New Hampshire and that insulated a little bit of the negative aspects of celebrity, but what the film said is that there were so many people hungry. It turns out 40 million people hungry for some sense, some larger sense then the superficial kind of Madison Avenue sanitized version of history you were usually presented with and they were hungry for something that was done in an artful way. I’m a filmmaker. I’m interested in the art of film. I am not a historian. I tell stories and the word “history” is mostly made up of the “story.” So, that’s a nice conjunction, but I’m not a historian. I mean I think in the sense of the popular historians of the 19th century I am and in a free country, anybody can be, but in the scholarly sense, I’m not trained in that way. I’m interested in the art of film. I’m interested in that and, you know, when The Civil War happened, it was gleeful, but then the next film I made on the history of baseball had an even bigger audience, had even more acclaim and so to do Jazz and the war and now this film has gotten the best reviews of my entire professional life. And I think all it means is that we’ve been able, through hard work and I think sincere and authenticate dedication to the subject and to how we use the style to solve these artistic questions, been able to speak to people directly. I’ve always said that I was not interested in a past in which you were excavating dry dates, facts and events, but interested in an emotional archeology and that then goes back to the art of it, the transfer of emotion from one person to another. Time and time again, people approach me and talk about the feelings they experience.
Jo Reed: How was it finding money for your films before you were Ken Burns who made The Civil War, and just Ken Burns, a successful documentary filmmaker. I’m sure after The Civil War funding loosened up a little?
Ken Burns: Well, funding has always been extremely difficult and still is to this day. But in the beginning, you know, the first film I made was on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and I was in my early 20s. I looked about 12 and so people would laugh and slam the door and say, “This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge,” no. It’s never gotten easier, but you’re right. I mean that film was nominated for an Academy Award. My third film was nominated for an Academy Award. My fourth film enjoyed this widespread theatrical distribution. I thought before The Civil War that I had achieved the pinnacle of what my profession, a historical documentary filmmaker, had to offer, and felt incredibly happy and satisfied. So, the exponential explosion that took place from The Civil War was different and I remember walking with my then three and a half-year-old daughter down Broadway in New York and somebody recognized me up ahead and she squeezed my hand even tighter because she saw that and she said, “Look, daddy, they want Ken Burns.” At that point, I thought that was the greatest gift because it was well before domain names. I mean it was all one word, “Ken Burns.” I was daddy and in fact, I was to me, just me, but for that person I had become this other thing and I took that as a cautionary tale and continued to live in rural New Hampshire where any notoriety plus $0.50 gets you a cup of coffee.
Jo Reed: Well, you make films about America and I’d like you to speak briefly about how the arts can be a wonderful window into America, that they’re not something that just takes place on the side, but they’re actually part of the warp and the woof of the country.
Ken Burns: I think they are exactly that. I think that they represent the deepest appreciation of who we are and it’s so interesting that we find the supporters and the adherents, this isn’t a partisan issue as it is sometimes turned into in Congress, but Republicans and Democrats and Independents alike understand that value of things, that we need for one and one to not always equal two, but three. That’s what the arts do. We’re always saying that we want the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts, but we don’t ever actually examine the difference between the sum of the parts and that whole. And more often than not, that difference is art, that difference is the free electrons given off by the collision of media and materials, by the collision of ideas, by the collision of individuals, by the juxtaposition of things and that’s what we look for. All of us want one and one to equal three and yet, there’s something about scary about it. It always brings up the word “love.” It always brings up the words “emotions” that are often difficult to calibrate and so we retreat to what we think is the safety of our rational world and proceed along that still missing that other thing. I mean we’re right to suspect sentimentality and nostalgia, but we forget that the higher emotions, that’s the place where art is generated, are the key to our salvation, not just as individuals, not just as communities, but as a country. And so, the arts don’t have anything to do with the defense of our country per se. They just make our country worth defending.
Jo Reed: Ken Burns, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Ken Burns: Thank you so much. I enjoyed being with you.
Jo Reed: That was documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talking about his last project, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the assistant producer.
The music is “Renewal” by Doug and Judy Smith.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, cowboy poet and 2009 National Heritage Fellow, Joel Nelson.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Additional credit: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug & Judy Smith is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.