Did Burns plant that idea here, in these two photos? Probably not. But it is like that Our America is working. It does not tell the history of the United States through a narrative or a set of arguments. It depicts a chaotic tangle of power and motive, success and failure, in a way that is highly suggestive but also confusing. You may recognize 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. But above all, Burns selection insist that any study of America’s past—yes, the very idea a typically American past – means piling up question after question after question.
The biggest question, however, might be: what does this book have to do with us? Our America proposes an answer in the essay by Sarah Hermanson Meister, executive director of the Aperture Foundation and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. She borrows her title “A Powerful Monument to our Moment” from the elegiac work of Walker Evans American Photographs, published in 1938, and she writes in parallel about Evans and Burns. But the comparison doesn’t quite stand up. While Evans and Burns may have created “epic photographic portraits of America,” as Meister puts it, their books are very different: American Photographs is the fully realized vision of a single artist working at a given point in time while Our America is a fragmentary, collective national self-portrait spanning centuries. Master, to be fair, recognizes these differences, but exactly how Our America could be “a memorial to our moment” is a bit somber. In fact, Burns’ book isn’t really about our moment at all: Our America falls sharply from the 1970s and ends with just four Photos from throughout the 21st century.
The book feels particularly like a retreat from the present when compared to Burns’ latest film, The United States and the Holocaust. The film explains how a toxic 1930s stew of nativism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia supported and fueled the Nazi death machine. It ends with a frantic montage racing through the past half-century of white reaction, culminating in Trump, Charlottesville and January 6th. For a Ken Burns film, that’s a shockingly pointed conclusion. Burns and his co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein are definitely not letting us miss the lesson. Our America makes no such express claim to the present.