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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The soothing baritone of actor George Takei quotes the contemplations of landscape painter Chiura Obata on the High Sierra: “In the evening, it gets very cold; the coyotes howl in the distance; in the midsky, the moon is arching; all the trees are standing here and there; and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness.”

It’s a great lesson for painters and photographers alike, and one of many that can be gleaned from the remarkable program, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, the six-episode series directed by Ken Burns. The documentarian takes us on a journey not only through America’s most magnificent landscapes, but also back in time to visit the forward-looking people—many of them wielding heavy cameras and tripods—who helped preserve these great bastions of nature for posterity.

The development of photography and the national park movement grew and matured together in the 19th century. Soon after the ability to fix a shadow came into being, photography became an important weapon in the arsenal of conservationists in their battles with developers. Outdoor Photographer recently had the opportunity to sit down with Burns.

Soon after the ability to fix a shadow came into being, photography became an important weapon in the arsenal of conservationists in their battles with developers.

OP: In your program on the national parks, you’ve once again made great use of the still image. Let’s talk about the first two major locations you focus on, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

Ken Burns: The photographs that began to come back of the falls at Yosemite and the bare, polished granite peaks of El Capitan, the cathedral spires and Half Dome, along with the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, really galvanized interest in this area in the mid-19th century. It was possible to go back and make political inroads and convince people that this land should be preserved. Yosemite is the first time in human history where great sections of natural land were set aside by the federal government. It was given to the state of California, so it doesn’t qualify as the world’s first national park. It was the first federal reserve. The only reason that eight years later, in 1872, the same didn’t happen to Yellowstone is that it was in a territory. There was no state entity to give it to. So it became the world’s first national park.

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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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Directed by noted documentarian Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea explores the importance that the national park system has had for nature lovers, preservationists and the history of the country as a whole. Burns filmed the series over the course of more than six years, exploring a variety of scenic locations in national parks throughout the United States. Though primarily a filmmaker, he’s aware of the power that a still photograph can have. Burns speaks in depth on the importance that nature photographers have had in establishing the national parks, and his trademark “Ken Burns Effect” is a series of pans and zooms across photos from the era that illustrates the impact that a single, well-chosen image can have.

OP: How did you come up with what has come to be known as the “Ken Burns Effect?”

Burns: I wanted to breathe life into the past. I noticed my colleagues were always holding old photographs at arm’s length like a slideshow and waiting breathlessly until they could get to footage. You could almost hear this palpable, “Oh, thank God! We’re at the movies!” And I was thinking, “Nonsense.”

The single greatest compliment I ever got wasn’t an award or a review, but from a woman after a screening of Brooklyn Bridge, my very first film for public television. I did a screening at the Brooklyn Museum ahead of the broadcast. If there were 75 people in the audience, I would be surprised. We had folding chairs and a borrowed pull-up screen on a tripod and a 16mm projector in the room making a lot of noise. At the end of the film, a woman asked, “Where did you get the footage of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge?” I told her there was no footage, that the bridge was built between 1869 and 1883, before the invention of motion pictures. I asked her if she meant in the second part of the film, where we start with the early Edison paper print footage from 1899 in which he mounted a camera on one of the trains that used to go over the bridge. She said, “No, no, no. I’m talking about when they bring the blocks of stones from the boats up to the towers.” I said, “Ma’am, those are still photographs.” She looked at me and said, “No, they’re not.”

OP: How did you do the camera moves on these still photographs?

Burns: We took a 2x4 into which we cut a groove running lengthwise. We put that 2x4 on a table. We then inserted into it a 2x3-foot piece of metal and then attached photographs to that piece of metal with magnets. We lit this with two lights into umbrellas at 45-degree angles. We then put the camera with close-up lenses on a tripod and got into the photograph.

OP: This puts the viewer right into the photograph and transports them back to the moment that the image was taken.

Burns: We want to not just live inside the photograph, but also listen to the photograph and make it come alive. This requires me to treat the 2D stuff as if it’s real. What sounds would be there? For the Brooklyn Bridge shots, in addition to this energetic exploring of the reality of those still photographs, I added the sounds of seagulls, tides, the hissing of a hydraulic machine, the tension of winches, the distant shouts of men, and of hammers. That’s what the woman at the Brooklyn Museum heard. Then if you’ve added period music—and you’re not just listening to the traditional third-person narrator, but one punctuated with first-person voices that were authentic, saying what the newspapers were saying, what the letters were saying, what the diaries were saying—all of a sudden, you have that thing that Faulkner was talking about: History isn’t about “was,” but “is.” This was my attempt to honor the complex information in that photograph and to try to honor the past.

OP: So the “Ken Burns Effect,” in the larger sense, goes far beyond stimulating the visual senses. It’s directed at our ears, as well.

Burns: The mix for the national parks program is one of the most complex, but subtle mixes we’ve ever done. I was joking that if you watch it on a large TV screen and have 5.1 surround sound and HD, you better put on a rain slicker because Yosemite Falls is going to spill into your living room. That’s what you want, and the response has been in that way and not just on the emotional and historical levels we always try to speak to, but in the experiential.

OP: Hopefully, the series will motivate more people to get out and experience these amazing places.

Burns: What we’re learning is, people are changing their plans. We used to have this cynical discussion back in film school. Does a film make anybody actually do anything, or is it just preaching to the converted? I think one of the most satisfying aspects of the films we’ve made is that they have actually made people do things: to go to a Civil War battlefield, to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, to visit a Shaker village or to go to a national park.

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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.


    Many thanks to Ken Burns. I hear it is a beautiful work of art. The American people owe gratitude to Ansel Adams and others before but the media tend to focus on the biggest superstars and the most obscure people, but often skip those who do the majority of the work like my father, landscape photographer Philip Hyde. Ansel Adams himself said, “Philip Hyde worked like a dog” to protect American wilderness. I realize not all aspects of a vast subject can be covered. However, to set the record straight, more of Philip Hyde’s photographs fought for more national parks than any other photographer. His work helped create North Cascades N. P., Redwood N. P., Point Reyes, protected Dinosaur N. M. and Grand Canyon N. P., helped expand Canyonlands, Arches, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, Denali, re-designation of Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Capitol Reef, and several others and wilderness areas within the Navajo Reservation, Wyoming, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Utah and Arizona.

    Many thanks for this article and interview. I watched the program on my local PBS station in Colorado Springs and really enjoyed it. I have been an outdoor enthusiast and landscape photographer for many years (semi-pro level) and, living in Colorado, have visited and photographed in many if not almost all of the national parks, monuments, preserves and forests in this state and every time I go, I am filled with wonder at the beauty of nature. This past summer myself and my wife traveled to Utah and Arizona to visit the canyon country in those states,. It was a wonderful experience. Also Thanks to the Navajo Nation for preserving the Monument Valley Tribal Park for our enjoyment. Let’s not forget that the Native American people are the ones that can teach us how to appreciate nature and preserve it as it should be appreciated

    We owe a dept of gratitude to people like John Muir, Ansel Adams and, yes, Ken Burns and all those before them who had the foresight to start the National Park movement.

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