Tag Archives: Ken Burns

“The Civil War” by Ken Burns: A NEW BIRTH OF FREEDOM

11 Sep

“The Civil War’s” Episode #5 — “The Universe of Battle – 1863” — is about 1.5 hours long. It begins with the image of a famous photograph by Mathew B. Brady and his team taken in Gettysburg about 10-14 days after the battle’s end.  While showing this picture of three captured (or deserter) Confederate soldiers posing for Brady as if they were paid professionals, Shelby Foote lyrically emotes: “there’s something about that picture that draws me strongly as an image of the war.” Mr. Foote reveals that his fondness comes from his interpretation of the body language of one of the soldiers as that of proud defiance.

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Crammed into the final 6 minutes of the end of that episode is a segment Ken Burns titled “A New Birth of Freedom.”

Despite this segment’s short treatment of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, that particular title has evolved over time into one of the most important themes of the entire movie. Burns has repeated it over and over again in dozens upon dozens of interviews during the last 25 years in order to explain the modern relevancy of both “The Civil War” and the conflict itself.

The opening scene in “A New Birth of Freedom” is video footage of former Missouri Congressman James W. Symington eloquently reflecting that if he:

had a choice of all the moments he could be present at during [the] war period it would be at Gettysburg during Lincoln’s delivery of his speech. Maybe to have seen him craft those beautiful words, those marvelous healing words, and then deliver them. They were for everyone, for all time. They subsumed the entire war and all in it. It showed his compassion for everyone. His love for his people. That’s where I’d like to be.”

I remember watching this 25 years ago and saying out loud to no one in particular: “that, too, is where I would want to be.”

After Symington finishes, David McCullough narrates: “On November 19th, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate the new Union cemetery.”

Oops, a blooper! Lincoln actually traveled to Gettysburg on the 18th and we as a nation are very lucky he did.

Had Lincoln left Washington, D.C. on the morning of the 19th, as Secretary of War Stanton had planned, Lincoln never would have arrived at Gettysburg on time. Yet even if he had been delivered there by divine intervention, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” would have been very different. Lincoln wouldn’t have rewritten a portion of his speech at David Wills’ home on the night of the 18th or visited a portion of the battlefield by carriage very early on the morning of the 19th, after which he possibly added the last several critical lines of his Address … including the words “a new birth of freedom.”

There also would have been no serenading of Lincoln by the crowds in Gettysburg on the night of the 18th, resulting in Lincoln’s “First” Gettysburg Address. In that very short public address, Lincoln stood by an open doorway and joked that he had no speech to give and therefore, based upon past experience, would not give any. It was this address which many Northern Democrat-owned and Southern newspapers alike reported as Lincoln’s ONE & ONLY Gettysburg Address — for which they mocked Lincoln derisively.

About a minute and half into “A New Birth of Freedom,” we come face-to-face with the print of a very famous photograph. Burns then focuses our attention exclusively on that photo over the next 66 seconds (a capture of the second shot of it from the remastered film in HD, below).

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It is a photo which was taken at the sight of the dedication of Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ Cemetery. And it’s original negative, sadly, has been lost to history. Of greatest importance is that it is the only Gettysburg photograph which is universally agreed to show Lincoln [to read about another which may also show Lincoln, click this link]. Yet Lincoln’s appearance within it wasn’t announced until February 11, 1953 after Josephine Cobb of the National Archives tentatively identified Lincoln. A consensus was reached over time that it is him.

Ken Burns used this photograph in three separate and consecutive shots. In the first, he zoomed in on detail to the left, revealing some of the soldiers standing in a hollow square formation. They are turned to face towards the camera and strike a pose (the same detail from an image courtesy of the Library of Congress, at right).

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The second frame shows the entire photograph, giving some sense of the scale of the event (but not its full scope) and the distance the photographers were set up from the speakers’ platform and the crowds jammed around Lincoln and others. In its third usage, Burns filmed a very tight shot of an area on the speaker’s platform and had his camera zoom in towards the face of Abraham Lincoln. Here is a capture of Burn’s tightest shot from the remastered film in HD available at www.pbs.org, placed side-by-side with detail from a Library of Congress scan (at right).

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David McCullough narrates the following during the minute plus airing of this photo:

Then Lincoln rose. A local photographer took his time focusing. Presumably the President could be counted on to go for a while. But he spoke just 269 words … Lincoln was heading back to his seat before the photographer could open the shutter.

Just a small faux pas here because the camera those men used was not equipped with a shutter. Rather, an exposure was created simply by removing and replacing a cap over the lens. Crude home-made drop shutter lenses were then a great rarity.

The story Mr. McCullough described is a combination of two accounts published more than 30 years after the event. Those accounts spoke to the presence of a photographer right in front of the platform who failed to take a picture of Lincoln while he stood and spoke. To be clear, neither those accounts nor Mr. McCullough’s narration relate in any way to this photograph.

It was first deduced by William A. Frassanito, to my knowledge, that the photographers who took this image in which Lincoln is discernible were David Bachrach of Baltimore and an undentified cameraman from Harper’s Weekly. I firmly believe that those men might be seen together within detail from a different photograph taken on the grounds of the Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery on November 19, 1863 (see below, courtesy of the Library of Congress). One can be made out (through the limbs of a tree) seated atop a tall folding ladder. He is peering through his camera with his left arm extended while the other man stands near him with a portable darkroom on a tripod. If these men are not Bachrach and the Harper’s Weekly photographer, then they are likely David Woodbury and Anthony Berger (two Mathew Brady photographers). They were first pointed out and described in the book Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg” For more about them, click here for the article “Finding Photographers and Their Equipment in Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery Photos.”

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Bachrach wrote in 1916 that “I took the portable dark-room and [went to Gettysburg], and did the technical work of photographing the crowd, not with the best result while Mr. Everett was speaking.” That is exactly what the photograph used by Ken Burns and showing Lincoln depicts: Edward Everett standing and speaking (see him in blurred detail, below at left).

07639u_BachrachMr. Bachrach made no mention of attempting to photograph Lincoln while he spoke or even after he returned to his seat. It is logical that he would have mentioned it had he done so.

If you wonder what Lincoln was doing the moment he was photographed, take a look at the following and click “Addressing What Lincoln is Doing While Seated on the Platform at Gettysburg.”

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Fell free to share with me what you think.

There’s something about that picture that draws me strongly as an image of the Civil War!

Craig Heberton, September 10, 2015

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” (1990) Remastered for 2015 and Beyond

7 Sep

If you visit the PBS website at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/civil-war/ you will find links to the viewing schedule for the remastered 25th anniversary HD version of Ken Burns’ The Civil War at your local PBS affiliate:

“Twenty-five years ago, a film about history made history … From Director Ken Burns, for the first time in high-definition,  “The Civil War,” starts Monday September 7, [2015] at 9:00 pm (8:00 Central) [and concludes on September 11]. Only on PBS.

No historical documentary has ever had the impact of THE CIVIL WAR when it was first broadcast by PBS a quarter of a century ago. More than 40 million people watched its first run. It won more than 40 major television and film awards. Millions more have seen it in classrooms or on videotape.

THE CIVIL WAR, the award-winning film produced and directed by Ken Burns, will be rebroadcast over five consecutive nights … The broadcast, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the series’ initial broadcast in September 1990, will present for the first time a newly restored, high-definition version. This is also the first time the film will be seen with the same fidelity and framing as the negative that Burns and his co-cinematographers … shot more than 25 years ago.”

The Civil War Defines Who We are Today

Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. And I believe that firmly. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars beginning with the First World War did what they did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became … good and bad things …  and it is very necessary if you are going to understand the American character in the [21st] century to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the cross-roads of our being … and it was a hell of a crossroads.”   — Shelby Foote, Historian, quoted in Episode 1 of The Civil War (pictured below, left, with Ken Burns, c. 1990, courtesy of Florentine Films)

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Why Watch the Remastered Film “The Civil War?”

Today’s audiences expect sharper images and richer sound—so much sharper and richer that no one 25 years ago could have imagined the improvements we now take for granted. To reach a whole new audience with the story of America’s greatest crisis, and to offer those who have already seen the series a far more compelling experience, we decided to completely restore the series to ultra high definition4K resolution—to bring it up to the standards that current audiences demand

The 4K film scans capture every nuance of detail in the sharpest focus in the photographs, stock footage, interviews, and live material that are the basic building blocks of the series’ visuals

Visually, THE CIVIL WAR is now rock steady, sharper in focus, cleaner, and with a greatly enhanced visual beauty. The color is now as it was intended to be when the film was originally shot. The still photographs all have been assigned a variety of black-and-white or sepia tones that correspond to the intended emotional effect of the sequences. There is also 10 percent more image area than in the previous version, which was cropped out due to the 4:3 square broadcast.”   — Paul Barnes, Lead Editor of “The Civil War” [emphasis added]

The Starring Role of Civil War Photography in the Film

THE CIVIL WAR was five years in the making. The film vividly embraces the entire sweep of the war: the complex causes and lasting effects of America’s greatest and most moving calamity, the battles and the homefronts, the generals and the private soldiers, the anguish of death in battle and the grief of families at home. 

Archival images of 16,000 photographs, taken from a total of 1 million pictures of the Civil War, along with period paintings, lithographs, and headlines, were combined with moving newsreel footage of Civil War veterans, evocative live cinematography of the now quiet battle sites, interviews with distinguished historians, and the inclusion of first-person accounts.” http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/civil-war/about/about-overview/

The Strengths of the Original Film

The Civil War documentary which first aired in 1990 represents the coming together of many great elements of documentary film-making.  For starters, it offers up a “national treasure trove” of narrators and voices such as: David McCullough (to whom I could listen all day long), Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln, Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman, Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman, George Black as Robert E. Lee, Horton Foote as Jefferson Davis, Jody Powell as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Julie Harris as Mary Chesnut, Paul Roebling as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Christopher Murney as Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Charley McDowell as Sam Watkins, and Studs Terkel as Gen. Benjamin Butler.

They dramatically breathe life into the actual words penned or spoken by their real-life characters a century and a half ago.

The film’s telling of the story of the Civil War relies heavily on the words of many of the most famous (as well as some of the more obscure) figures involved in the conflict. But Burns also strategically interjects clips of distinguished historians ruminating about key personalities, battles, triumphs, tragedies, strategies, anecdotes, political machinations, higher purposes, and how the Civil War relates to and continues to impact modern times.  Those historians serve as the modern glue which holds the entirety of the work together.

Say what you will about the music. Some people love the song “Ashokan Farewell” which is played numerous times (25) during the series. Others hate it.  Many don’t realize it was composed in 1982. Even though it is the only modern music used in the series,  it is the tune most identified with Ken Burns’ masterpiece. But it isn’t the film’s only music by any stretch. “Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Bonnie Blue Flag” are two other very catchy period songs which immediately come to mind. And don’t forget about the tremendous sound effects.

But what resonates the most within the film’s nine episodes is its sweeping visual impact thanks in large measure to Ken Burn’s heavy reliance upon images from surviving Civil War photographs and sketches. Although there is some incredibly stunning video — particularly clips from the Gettysburg veterans’ anniversary reunions in 1913 and 1938 as well as  beautiful modern color footage — Burns’ videographers relied almost exclusively upon 1860s photographs. Repeatedly, they zoom-in upon astonishing photographic details in magnificent data-laden wet-plate collodion slides and prints created by men associated with Mathew B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, Andrew J. Russell, George N. Barnard, the Anthonys, Sam A. Cooley, George S. Cook, and others. Unfortunately, 1990 technology made it difficult to quickly discern those details in the original release.

The film’s restorer, Daniel J. White, has promised that within the 2015 HD version “new details will become visible in the hundreds of black-and-white photos used in the film.” Let’s hope so! But also be aware that super hi-resolution scans of the vast majority of photographs used in The Civil War can be viewed online and downloaded sometimes in .tiff files up to 100 to 200 megs in size at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and other institutions.

Because the vast majority of Civil War photographs were taken by photographers living in the “North,” those images offer the richest source of photographic history. Yet Burns’ team still made every effort to film many images taken by southern photographers too.

It should come as no surprise that the surviving photographs don’t always dovetail perfectly with the story-line for The Civil War, particularly relative to the underrepresented western theater of the war. Lacking “on the money” imagery to visually drive home a point, Burns understandably was compelled at times to rely upon photographs unequivalent to the time, place, and/or subject matter addressed by the film’s narrator. In fairness, in some instances no one knows for sure when or where or by whom specific photos were taken because the photographers usually left no records of such and historians haven’t yet solved those mysteries.

But had Civil War photographs played an even more central role in defining the story-line of the film, Ken Burns might have devoted a few minutes to explain the basics of outdoor Civil War photography —  including that nearly 3/4 of the photos were shot so that they can be viewed today in 3D. Despite the cumbersome tasks that befell outdoor photographers in the 1860s and the limitations of their slow exposure technology, the thousands of Civil War photographs they managed to take allow us, several generations later, to “see” and get a “visual feel” for the war which cost us more American lives than the sum total of all of the other conflicts in which Americans have been engaged both before and ever since.

What Is Supposed to Look Better in the Remastered Film

In a September 4, 2015 Washington Post blog article titled “25 years after ‘The Civil War,’ Ken Burns finally made his dream movie” by Alyssa Rosenberg,  there is an illustration of the quality improvement in the new version of “The Civil War.” Ken Burns and his restorer, Daniel J. White, have said that a “murkiness” in many images will be replaced by clearer, more realistic looking scenes. A frame from modern footage of the Burnside Bridge (originally called Rohrbach’s or Lower Bridge) at the Antietam National Battlefield was used to highlight the “before” and “after” differences (see below).

Before-after KB Burnside Bridge, Anitetam Battlefield NP

What I’m most looking forward to seeing is the improvement in the quality of the Civil War photographs used in the film.

In the The Washington Post article, Mr. Burns highlighted the impact of significantly improved photographic imagery by noting the film’s use of an image of Lincoln posing with General McClellan in a tent in early October 1862 near Sharpsburg, MD two weeks after the Battle of Antietam.  Photographer Alexander Gardner’s men took this and other images in that locale to chronicle Lincoln’s visit to the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan. At the time of the visit, Lincoln was greatly disappointed by McClellan’s failure to pursue General Lee’s numerically inferior forces after repelling them at Antietam Creek on September 17. Lincoln wanted McClellan to destroy or capture the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan, on the other hand, thought he should be congratulated for the Antietam “victory” and that Lincoln should defer to his military judgment not to pursue Lee in the aftermath of the single bloodiest day in American history.

Alyssa Rosenberg wrote that “it’s now possible to read President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan’s facial expressions in a snapshot of the two men taken during the meeting at which Lincoln fired his top commander.” To be more precise, Ken Burns was quoted as saying:  

You can now see in the pictures of them in the tent the tension between them. Now, it may have been apparent in the previous images because of the quality of the writing, whatever the music and the sound effects were suggesting, but now you’ve taken away that veil and you’re permitted to see that interpersonal dynamic, and suddenly you can understand McClellan’s kind of combination of arrogant distance from Lincoln and Lincoln’s exasperation, and the fact that his sorry butt is going to be axed in a couple of moments is terrific.” (detail from two views at the Library of Congress, LC-B811- 602 and LC-B817- 7948, below)

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My own take on the Lincoln-McClellan “tent” photographs is a bit less dramatic, especially in view of the vagaries of outdoor photography in 1862 as well as Lincoln’s record of posing before the camera. For starters, Lincoln did not relieve McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac until November 5, 1862, more than a month after these “tent” poses were taken. Although there surely was tension between Lincoln and McClellan throughout their relationship and Lincoln visited McClellan to try to cajole him into action, I think Mr. Burns reads too much into his interpretation of Lincoln’s face and body language by suggesting that there is palpable “exasperation” on Lincoln’s face.

Perhaps it can be said that McClellan’s face or attitude betrays some form of “arrogant distance,” but I think even that overplays the simple fact that McClellan’s paramount concern during the picture taking session was to look squarely at Lincoln with his “I am the commander” look and hold his pose for several seconds. For that matter, I have not seen any photographs of McClellan in uniform in which he didn’t try to look “dashing” or “authoritative;” he surely didn’t earn the moniker “Young Napoleon” for nothing (examples, below, courtesy of the Library of Congress).

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The Alexander Gardner photographic team prepared the glass plate for each of the Lincoln-McClellan photographs shortly before they were created. It would have taken them about 5 minutes of time to do so, followed by another 5 minutes to complete the development of each specific negative shortly thereafter [I believe the Gardner team simultaneously prepared the two negative plates used for the creation of these photos]. In other words, sitting for a photograph was a lengthy process by today’s standards, especially for an ultra-busy and fidgety President who was in the midst of prosecuting a war which hadn’t been going too well up to that point. The two images captured by the photographers were not candid snapshots. The technology which then existed required the men to be posed and to hold their poses.

In the first photograph of Lincoln seated in the tent with McClellan (above), Alexander Gardner situated the Commander-in-Chief slightly forward of McClellan and likely asked Lincoln not to gaze directly at McClellan. To make the scene as patriotic looking as possible, Lincoln was posed next to a table draped with the American flag upon which his stovepipe hat rested between two candlesticks. It needs to be understood that Lincoln never looked completely comfortable when he was photographed. As Ohio politician Donn Piatt recalled, Lincoln “had a face that defied artistic skill to soften or idealize.” Writes Harold Holzer, “photographs did little to disguise Lincoln’s sometimes vacant expression, his so-called photographer’s face.” Lloyd Ostendorf describes Lincoln’s “photographer’s face” in the following manner:

Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required. A man who knew Lincoln, Dr. James Miner, commented: ‘His large bony face when in repose was unspeakably sad and as unreadable as that of a sphinx, his eyes were as expressionless as those of a dead fish’” (emphasis added)

It is THAT “photographer’s face” which I see particularly in the first photograph — Lincoln with vacant and expressionless eyes gazing off into the distance. I detect no palpable tension in Lincoln’s face, although he surely felt some discomfort over posing rigidly during each of the several second exposures (perhaps for as long as 5 to 10 seconds as betrayed by the flag blurred by the movement of a breeze and the piece of paper blown up against the bottom of Lincoln’s chair in the second view).

Lincoln-McClellan-tent Antietam

McClellan’s gaze is locked onto Lincoln’s face in both views. In the first, the General sat with his left hand relaxed on his leg and a cigar perched in that hand. But in the second, when Lincoln presumably was directed by Alexander Gardner to look McClellan straight in the eye, McClellan sat up straighter in his chair and leaned slightly forward so his face wasn’t partially in the sunlight. You might conclude that his demeanor was a bit more attentive and even respectful (for example, his cigar can no longer be seen).

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McClellan looks somewhat less comfortable in that second photo. But his slight discomfort probably had little to do with Lincoln’s gaze. Alex Gardner likely directed him to bring his face completely into the shadows — so that it wouldn’t be bisected half-in and half-out of the sunlight as occurred in the first view. Lincoln, on the other hand, did not do anything between the exposures other than execute a slight turn of his head in order to look directly at McClellan’s face. Yet, in profile he still affected his “photographer’s face;” kind of like a poker-face expression. If anything, Lincoln’s appearance and demeanor in the second view might be described as “cool as a cucumber.”LC-B817- 7948 04351az

Watch for the appearance of the second “tent” photograph in Episode 3, “Forever Free.” When you see it, realize that Ken Burns in 1990 did not have access to the ultra-high resolution digital scans I have used in this piece. The quality of the photographs which he then filmed with his 16mm camera just wasn’t anything like what can be seen today. His 2015 edition is the product of remastering that original 16mm film stock. It does not utilize today’s digital scans of what are presumed to be first or early generation glass plate negatives. Without criticizing or taking away anything from Ken Burn’s Civil War masterpiece, I think the best way to answer what the faces of men like Lincoln project or betray in 150+ year old photographs is to look at their modern day digital scans.

Craig Heberton, September 7, 2015

[Stay tuned for updates after episodes of the 2015 remastered The Civil War run over the course of the next several days]

If You Like the Improvement in Civil War Photo Quality, Check This Out …

If you are finding the Civil War photographs used in the 2015 remastered version of  “The Civil War” to be a significant step forward in improved quality, you might want to watch Burns’ short video “Restoring the Film” at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/civil-war/ which explains the restoration process. Here is a capture of one of the examples used in that video. It is a “before-and-after” vidcap of detail within a photograph of “Fighting Joe” Hooker, a Union General who briefly commanded the Army of the Potomac. The “before” version is on the right side; the “after” on the left.

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Ken Burns explains in the video that within the Civil War photographs, you now can see that “the whites are whiter and the blacks are deeper and richer.” His restorers also elaborate that this is so because the digital scanning process applied to the original film stock allowed them to manipulate the contrast in order to enhance details within the original photographs which were filmed by Burns and his team in 16mm.

But if you want to see the same image in even more amazing detail on your computer screen, go to the source which houses the original print image — the Library of Congress — and see and download (if you are inclined) at their website a 104.7 megabyte .tiff file of the print.  You can find it here. Now place detail of Hooker from that Library of Congress scan next to the restored Ken Burns image. After some of my own photo editing work, here is what they look like side-by-side. The details in Hooker’s face are substantially better revealed in the Library of Congress scan.

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However, the most impressive details to be seen within super hi-res scans at the Library of Congress collection are those made from the glass plate negatives in its collection or housed at the National Archives. The General Hooker example, above, is from a print so there are limitations in the amount of detail that even very high resolution scans can extract from such an old print.

Craig Heberton, September 9, 2015