the Burns Method

Image at top is "Lower Hudson Street" about 1865, the other is "Washington Statue in Union Square" about 1860
At bottom is how I used the Union Square crop, which I thought was vaguely and abstractly menacing, in the Lincoln and New York exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. It was intended to help suggest (along with the engraving, etc ) the mounting popular dissatisfaction with Lincoln that led up to the Draft Riots.

NOTE 7-18: I shouldn't be surprised there's a Wikipedia entry about the "Ken Burns Effect"— I just cant believe I didnt know about it or the Apple reference.

One of the many things I admired about Ken Burns' famous Civil War series was not just the amazing evocation of the 1860s—but the exceptional sense of being enveloped in the 1860s. This was achieved, in part, with Burns' habit of dramatizing the photographs. By dramatizing I mean his practice of zooming into a small corner of a photograph, panning across it, and drawing back, at some point, so that the viewer sees the entire image. It's a journey across the image. Not only is this a clever way for a documentary filmmaker to increase the store of visuals he can draw from (each image can yield two or more scenes, especially helpful when sources are historical and of limited availability) it is also a method of revivifying, showing the life within the image.

Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography) speaks of the excitement of (select) images, the "the pressure of the unspeakable [within the image] which wants to be spoken." In his somewhat overwrought way, Barthes explains that the "adventure" and "animation" of certain images in turn animate the viewer. By isolating and framing small parts of a scene, or panning across a battlefield or streetscape, Burns extracts "adventure" from images that may, on first look, be quite standard or dull. Training the camera across a photograph recreates in a small way the experience of three dimensional world. It places the viewer in the setting and evokes the sensation of taking in that very scene. Also, by refocusing the eye on small corners, the viewer is privy to other stories that might escape notice when seeing the photo in its entirety. For Burns' camera, a single image of Richmond in ruins could offer up "resoluteness" in teasing out the tiny details of street life or it could reinforce "devastation" by lingering on each and every physical manifestation of war.

I was mesmerized by these latent stories in historical images. Limited only by the resolution (image quality) of the image one is working from there's the potential for extracting candid moments, where none seemed to exist. When I worked on the "Lincoln and New York" show at the New-York Historical Society I felt strongly that the galleries needed to have a sense of immediacy. Lincoln's walk through New York City on his way to his speaking engagement at Cooper Union should seem like the real walk it was. I had hoped to use photographic murals of New York street scenes only— no engravings—to place the visitor on those New York streets. (Of course others weighed in on the design and things got watered down, but still...) Above are two of several images I drew from— they're pretty powerful even without the Burns method, so my job was easy.
Why was I even thinking about this now? A typographer friend, Nick Sherman, created this amazing post of signage seemingly extracted out of nowhere from vintage photographs.

1 comment:

Joey said...

My God...the shot of all those signs is incredible!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...