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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: For the average American, the one nature photographer they can name is Ansel Adams. David Brower said that Ansel’s work was the perfect example of how photography can be used in preservation efforts. You touched upon that several times.

Burns: In 1938, Adams sent photographs of the Sierras’ Kings Canyon region to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who then shared them with Franklin Roosevelt. FDR helped to preserve a roadless expanse with a new designation, “Wilderness Park.” Adams’ pictures became the mediating factor to make this happen. Because it was a roadless park and because of his disability, FDR wouldn’t be able to see this place except through the photographs by people such as Ansel Adams.

OP: You also introduced us to many lesser-known photographers who played significant roles in the preservation movement such as George Masa whose work helped create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As you point out, his evolution into this role was unusual.

Burns: The Smokies seemed to be a refuge for the outcast, and we first focus on Horace Kephart, who was a writer. Then George Masa comes along, having left his life in Japan behind, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and starts over as a valet at a hotel in the Smokies. He then becomes someone who helps the tourists with their photographs, then someone who develops their photographs, then someone who takes photographs and then someone who goes out there taking photographs, helping to create support for a national park in the Smokies before the last of that old-growth forest went the way of the lumberman’s ax. His pictures become as central as the vivid prose of Horace Kephart in making that happen.

OP: You also illuminate the tragic displacement of the Native Americans in the creation of some of the parks.

Burns: I’m so glad you mentioned that. We got a little bit into the process of creating this series and realized that we were going from a distant geological history where we could describe the natural beauty formed eons ago to essentially the white European appropriation of these places, forgetting what the cost of that appropriation was. So very early on, we went back and insisted that we have an intermediate story of the native peoples who, for hundreds of generations, called each of these places their home. Gerard Baker, who’s a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe, reminded us in an interview for the film that these were places that didn’t need to be discovered; they had already been discovered and were already part of the cultures of many different tribes. We were always mindful of this bittersweet underlying story.

OP: Another tragedy was the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Documenting Manzanar was a very brave thing for Ansel Adams to do during World War II.

Burns: Hugely brave, and in our film, we showed that he got a lot of criticism for focusing on it. But his statement there, from his 1944 book Born Free and Equal, is so beautiful. “We must be certain that, as the rights of the individual are the most sacred elements of our society, we will not allow passion, vengeance, hatred, and racial antagonism to cloud the principles of universal justice and mercy.” Photographers are often great writers. They write with a poetic precision I find really impressive. My mentor Jerome Liebling does. I thought Ansel Adams wrote beautifully.

OP: One of those behind the barbed wire in Manzanar was Chiura Obata who, like Adams, could express himself so eloquently both through his art and through his pen. It seems like the central theme of both your program and the writings of Obata is that we need nature because it brings us back…

Burns: …to something elemental. You can find a connection between Chiura Obata and John Muir. They were in the same place. Obata is saying you can learn a lot by silence, and the quote we use at the opening of our film by Muir is “One learns this is still the morning of creation”; and later, in episode two, he says, “It’s all happening now.” This has been the focus of all great religious teachings. The parks and photography and all those things have been hand-in-hand accomplices in reminding us of these possibilities. The “decisive moment” that Cartier-Bresson talks about is all part of the sense of the illumination possible in these arrested moments.


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