Ken Burns’s Long, Hard Look At American History

Did Burns plant this idea here, in these two photos? Probably not. But that’s how Our America works. It doesn’t tell the story of the United States through a narrative or a series of arguments. It displays a messy tangle of power and motive, achievement and failure, in a way that’s highly suggestive but also bedeviling. You might pick up on certain patterns in these photos—the centrality of race and dispossession, the majesty of the landscape, the dignity of ordinary people, and even the vitality of photography as a medium. More than anything, though, Burns’ selections insist that any engagement with the American past—indeed, with the very the idea of a distinctly American past—means heaping questions upon questions upon questions.

The biggest question, though, might be: what does this book have to do with us? Our America suggests an answer in the essay by Sarah Hermanson Meister, executive director of the Aperture Foundation and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. She borrows her title, “A Powerful Monument to our Moment,” from Walker Evans’s elegiac American Photographs, published in 1938, and she writes about Evans and Burns in parallel. But the comparison doesn’t quite stick. Even though Evans and Burns may have created “epic photographic portraits of America,” as Meister puts it, their books are vastly dissimilar: American Photographs is the fully realized vision of a single artist working at a specific time, while Our America is a fragmentary, collective national self-portrait that spans centuries. Meister, to be fair, does recognize these differences, but precisely how Our America might be “a monument to our moment” is somewhat murky. In fact, Burns’s book isn’t really about our moment at all: Our America drops off sharply beginning in the 1970s and ends with only four photos from the entire twenty-first century.

The book seems especially like a retreat from the present when you compare it with Burns’s latest film, The US and the Holocaust. The film explains how a toxic stew of 1930s nativism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia aided and abetted the Nazi death machine. It ends with a hectic montage that rushes through the last half-century of white reaction, culminating in Trump, Charlottesville, and January 6th. For a Ken Burns film, it’s a shockingly pointed conclusion. There’s no way Burns and his co-directors, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, will let us miss the lesson. Our America makes no such explicit claim on the present.

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