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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

America's Best Idea


Outdoor Photographer sits down with Ken Burns to discuss our national parks and the role photographers played in establishing these treasures of the landscape. The legacy of the parks is inexorably tied to the legacy of nature photography in America.

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OP: How did that come about?

Burns: Yellowstone had been a source of gossip and rumors for years. Nobody believed the reports coming out by mountain men like John Colter, Joe Meek and Jim Bridger. It took a geological expedition in 1871 led by Ferdinand Hayden, who brought with him the painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. People could see for the first time, especially in the photographs of Jackson, the wonderland of Yellowstone, as it quickly became called. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had been published a few years earlier, so the word was on everybody’s tongue. It’s interesting to see how much photography, almost like the shadows on Plato’s Cave, has played a central role in convincing politicians and other Americans of the value of these spectacular natural places that almost defy description.

OP: Many of the early photographers went to great lengths, and at times, great heights, to capture the grandeur that was in front of their lenses. In your program, you used an image of a photographer, with the help of a colleague, dangling from a rock outcropping high above the Grand Canyon.

Burns: Those are the Kolb brothers, Emery and Ellsworth. They’re central to the story of the Grand Canyon. They took death-defying photographs, going out on winches across chasms. They also were the first to take motion pictures of the Grand Canyon.

OP: Like the Kolb brothers, you have a foot in both the still and motion-picture worlds. How did these two interests merge in your work?

Burns: As a child, one of my first memories is of my dad building a darkroom in a corner of the basement in Newark, Delaware. My next memory is of watching the images come up in the developer. He was a cultural anthropologist. Most notably, the area of his study was Alpine and Mediterranean peasants. In the April 1959 National Geographic, there’s an article he wrote, accompanied by his photographs of this beautiful Alpine village where I spent the first year of my life in 1953-54.

When I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, I went to Hampshire College, where all my teachers just happened to be social-documentary still photographers. Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes inculcated in me this sense of the power of individual images to convey complex information. So almost all of my documentary work is, in some ways, a subtle celebration of the power of photography.

OP: Which is interesting because you’re working in a medium…

Burns: …that’s supposed to move. We normally think, particularly with our eroded attention spans, that “move” has to be purely kinetic. But what we also know is that “move” is an emotional term, as well—that we can be moved by something.

Yellowstone had been a source of gossip and rumors for years. Nobody believed the reports coming out by mountain men like John Colter, Joe Meek and Jim Bridger. It took a geological expedition in 1871 led by Ferdinand Hayden, who brought with him the painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. People were able to see for the first time, especially in the photographs of Jackson, the wonderland of Yellowstone, as it quickly became called.

So I decided to live within these photographs—to treat an old photograph as if it were alive and to treat the live cinematography as if it were a painting or a photograph. The “live” in this series has kind of a painterly quality to it, I think, taking the dimensional objects, the views, and trying to reveal an essential plasticity.

The archival stills I’m treating as if I’m a feature filmmaker with the possibility of a wide shot, medium shot, close-up, pan, tilt—we’re taking the so-called flat, two-dimensional things and giving them dimension.

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