Sunday 1 May 2016

Ken Burns: King of the Documentary

"He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive." 
(Ken Burns, quoting his father-in-law)

A distant relative of the famous poet, Robert Burns, Ken Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York. The son of a biotechnician and a cultural anthropologist, Burns was surrounded by books; he devoured the family encyclopedia.  Tragedy struck early when, at 3, his mom was diagnosed with cancer and passed away eight years later.  Her death helped shape his career.

At 17, Burns received an 8 mm movie camera for his birthday and made his first film footage.  He attended Hampshire College and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in film studies and design in 1975, studying under photographers Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes.  Burns and a college classmate created Florentine Films named after Florence Massachusetts, Mayes' hometown.  He worked for both the BBC and Italian television for a short time.

Burns' father-in-law predicted his future:  "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive."  In 1976, Burns started adapting David McCullough's book The Great Bridge for television.  He believed that the bridge, one of America's greatest landmarks, affected many Americans.  Five years later, Burns documentary, The Brooklyn Bridge, premiered on PBS.  The new film maker was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982.

Burns soon became known for his "technique of cutting rapidly from one still picture to another, in a fluid, linear fashion".  He added first hand narration read by celebrities.  In the background, he played haunting melodies or time period pieces -- classic Ken Burns.

It was not until 1990 that Burns hit the big time with his chef d'oeuvre, The Civil War.  Forty million viewers watched the initial broadcast and Burns became a household name.   He has since made at least two dozen documentaries, the most recent being Jackie Robinson, which aired last month on PBS.  More are forthcoming in 2017 and 2018.

Note:  For a list of all of Ken Burns' documentaries, visit

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