It’s hard to believe a week has gone by since Ken Burns and Geoff Ward were here at Eastman House to receive George Eastman Medals of Honor. I’m not sure I’ve stopped smiling since then — listening to brilliant minds discuss their 28-year partnership was truly a privilege. These two guys – who on the surface could not be more different – have forged a symbiotic relationship that has resulted in making American history come alive for millions of us.
Ken Burns sitting for an interview in the Eastman House Terrace Garden
I think many people know Ken Burns’ name: as director, his have been the key name and face identified with so many award-winning documentaries. In person, he’s sprite-like, even jumping up on a chair when he gets intensely involved in working out details of a project. He enjoys a crowd and is an eloquent extemporaneous speaker, stringing together words in magical sentences in ways most authors only dream of.
Fewer people know Geoff Ward’s name, which is part of the reason Eastman House wanted to jointly honor this dynamic duo. Geoff has an unmatched ability to create the narrative arc of the stories the two work to relay…stories they admitted to not always having a shared passion for. The Jazz series, Geoff told us, was a dream of his since he was nine years old, while Ken knew little about the subject. The opposite was true of Baseball.
Part of the charm of this event, I think, was the interplay between Ken and Geoff, who told me afterward they had never before had an opportunity to discuss their process in front of a group – to “bat things about onstage”, as Geoff described it. And so the audience felt in the midst of a conversation among good friends.
There was something incredibly satisfying in learning that Ken and Geoff still do all their own original research. They don’t send research assistants and interns out looking for photographs and moving images or subjects to interview. They want to see that source material themselves; they fear that were someone to bring them 500 images from a cache of 1000 photographs, there might be one photograph that, had they seen it with their own eyes, would have given them a key story fragment.
Their process is convoluted, exhaustive and likely exasperating for those not intimately involved, for they don’t start with a script. They start with a subject, and then seek to find anything and anyone that can shed light on the subject. They don’t always know where they’re going, and they check their egos at the door, willing to also leave on the cutting room floor what one may have thought would be critical to the story early on. The result is historical storytelling that catches us by surprise, even when we know history’s outcomes. As Burns said, “We know Lewis and Clark got back. We know the Union won the Civil War. But if we tell the story well, the viewer can get caught up in the moment and forget that he knows where the story goes. That’s when we know we’ve got it right.”
One of my favorite moments of the evening was Geoff telling the audience about his time spent earlier in the day with Joe Struble, Archivist for our Photograph Collection. Geoff is a Roosevelt scholar, and admits to being fairly obsessed with Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor (and is working now with Burns on creating a new documentary on the Roosevelts). He thought he had seen every photograph ever made of all three Roosevelts. But in the space of 45-minutes, Joe brought out six photographs Geoff had never before seen, including photographs of Eleanor Roosevelt by Edward Steichen. I, for one, will be looking for those Steichen photographs of Eleanor when the Roosevelt documentary airs several years from now. And I’m guessing I’ll be on the edge of my seat, wondering whether FDR can actually get that New Deal through Congress.
Here’s to you, Ken and Geoff! Thanks for giving all our guests an intimate look at your work, and thanks for helping promote civic values and civic action through your work. George Eastman himself would applaud your efforts.
Editors Note: Visit our Ken Burns and Geoff Ward Facebook Photo Album for more images of their visit.
Pamela Sanchez is a member of the Senior Staff of George Eastman House.
She's a blogging neophyte just venturing into the 21st century.