Historian and Filmmaker
Ken Burns is a celebrated American documentary filmmaker of the 1980's and 1990's who gradually amassed a considerable reputation and a devoted audience with a series of reassuringly traditional meditations on Americana. Burns' works are treasure troves of archival materials: He skillfully utilizes period music and footage, photographs, periodicals, and ordinary people's correspondence, the latter often movingly read by seasoned professional actors in a deliberate attempt to get away from a "Great Man" approach to history.
Like most non-fiction filmmakers, Burns wears many hats on his projects, variously serving as a writer, cinematographer, editor, and music director in addition to producing and directing. He achieved his apotheosis with PBS' The Civil War (1990), a phenomenally popular 11-hour documentary that won two Emmys and broke all previous ratings records for public TV. The series' companion coffee table book--priced at a hefty $50--sold more than 700,000 copies. The audio version, narrated by Burns, was also a major best-seller. In the final accounting, The Civil War, became the first documentary to gross over $100 million. Not surprisingly, it has become perennial fundraising programming for public TV stations around the country.
Ken Burns arrived upon the scene with the Oscar-nominate Brooklyn Bridge (1981), a nostalgic chronicle of the construction of the fabled edifice. The film was more widely seen when rebroadcast on PBS the following year. Though Burns has made other nonfiction films for theatrical release, notably an acclaimed and ambiguous portrait of Depression-era Louisiana governor Huey Long (1985), PBS would prove to be his true home. He cast a probing eye on such American subjects as The Statue of Liberty (PBS, 1985), The Congress, painter Thomas Hart Benton (both PBS, 1989) and early radio with Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (PBS, 1992).
Ken Burns returned to longform documentary with his most ambitious project to date, an 18-hour history of Baseball which aired on PBS in the fall of 1994. He approached the national pastime as a template for understanding changes in modern American society. Ironically, this was the only baseball on the air at the time as the players and owners were embroiled in a bitter strike at the time.
Burns' most recent film, Unforgivable Blacknes: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, became one of the most highly anticipated documentaries of the year. The film snagged four Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Directing for a nonfiction special and Outstanding nonfiction special.
Race In America. As a historian, for more than 30 years, Ken Burns has been dealing with the theme of race in his characteristically American documentaries. Now, in the Obama era, he looks back from the perspective of monumental change in the country to reflect where we’ve been.
The National Parks: A Treasure House Of Nature’s Superlatives. Burns discusses the great gift of our national parks. Here both “the immensity and the intimacy of time” merge, as we appreciate what the parks have added to our collective and individual spirit.
Sharing The American Experience. Ken Burns reminds the audience of the timeless lessons of history, and the enduring greatness and importance of the United States in the course of human events. Incorporating The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, Burns engages and celebrates what we share in common as Americans.
No Ordinary Lives. Drawing on some of Lincoln's most stirring words as inspiration, this speech engages the paradox of war by following the powerful themes in two of Ken Burns's best known works: "The Civil War", his epic retelling of the most important event in American history, and "The War", his intensely moving story of World War II told through the experiences of so-called ordinary people from four geographically varied American towns.