The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 190-192
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Ken Burns's America. Gary R. Edgerton. Palgrave Press, 2001
Ken Burns's America by Gary R. Edgerton is a welcome study of America's premier documentary filmmaker that provides much food for thought for archivists. Edgerton's study considers the power of Burns's images, even if it does not directly explore some of the controversial or contentious aspects of Burns's use of archives. Ken Burns's America comments on public interest in history, the images that support such interest, and more implicitly, the role archivists can play by informing the public of the importance of documentary source materials.
Few are unfamiliar with Ken Burns's documentaries, a celebrity since the breakthrough success of his 1990 The Civil War series. Edgerton, a professor in communications and theater arts at Old Dominion University, argues [End Page 190] that Burns may be the most important documentary filmmaker of the second half of the twentieth century. Ken Burns's America offers a detailed account of Burns's filmmaking over the past twenty years, emphasizing his techniques and influences as well as the development of his film company, relationships with scholars and colleagues involved in his filmmaking, the popular and professional reception of Burns's documentaries, and some of the controversies surrounding his films.
The book commences with a chapter on The Civil War, the documentary that established Burns's reputation as a popular authority both on American history and documentary filmmaking. Edgerton then explores Burns's films in chronological order, concluding with his most recent work on the history of jazz. Edgerton's chronological arrangement provides a semibiographical framework, illustrating the evolution of Burns's work, the struggles faced by an independent documentary filmmaker, and the price exacted by his success.
Many themes interweave throughout this book. Burns's role as historian and his relationship to the professional academic history community are particularly revealing. Edgerton also foregrounds the significance and creativity of Burns's visual approach, which draws heavily on archival photographs and other materials. Finally, Edgerton frames Burns's access to archives and the manner in which he is able to blend textual and visual sources as a "chorus of voices" that speaks to the potential power of archival materials.
The positioning of Ken Burns as a professional historian poses some intriguing questions in Edgerton's book. Edgerton outlines a considerable tension between Burns and more traditional academic historians. Much of Ken Burns's success stems from his ability to reach a broad public, and while he denies any connection to a particular school of historical thought or historiographical method, many professional historians nonetheless closely scrutinize his films. If Burns characterizes himself as anything, it is as a popular historian. Edgerton's book succeeds in recounting the tension between Burns and the academy by framing this rivalry within a larger crisis in traditional history. With the rise and popularization of film and television histories, the academic historical community increasingly has found itself mired in chaotic and insular debates over traditional historical methodologies, audiences, and relevance. Unfortunately, Edgerton paints this rivalry as nothing more than petty jealousy, but I suspect it is far more complicated than this.
From the vantage of one interested in the use of archives, Ken Burns's America provides some valuable insights. As anyone who has watched Burns's documentaries can surmise, he is a heavy consumer of archival records and visual materials. Edgerton notes repeatedly how Burns and his staff visit, gather, and evaluate archival sources for nearly every documentary they produce. At one point, the author compares Burns's method to the common documentary practice of pairing visual reenactments with reading of firsthand accounts. Edgerton positions Burns's success with archival materials in terms of an ability to reframe still images, including manuscript material such as official records and diaries, as moving images. Dramatic readings from documents, the camera leisurely scrolling over a photograph or lithograph, and distinctive voices assuming roles of well-known and obscure historical figures produce a narrative that possesses both entertainment and educational value. For the...