cover image Our America: A Photographic History

Our America: A Photographic History

Ken Burns, with Susanna Steisel et al. Knopf, $60 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-35301-4

Documentarian Burns (Country Music: An Illustrated History) presents a stunning collection of photographs chronicling American history from 1839 to 2019. In the book’s intimate introduction, Burns traces the roots of his “life’s calling” to seeing his father cry for the first time while watching a movie after his mother’s death from cancer (“I understand instantly the power of film and the safe harbor it permitted him to have”), and explains the camera movements he uses to bring still photographs to life in his documentaries. The black-and-white photographs are presented one per page and captioned only with the date and location, fostering the viewer’s deep engagement with each image. (Comprehensive illustration notes appear at the end of the book.) It’s a powerful and moving collection, ranging from the obscure (a 1903 photo of the first Japanese American baseball team in the mainland U.S.) to the famous (Robert Frank’s 1955 image of passengers on a segregated trolley in New Orleans). Celebrity faces—Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, Johnny Cash—appear in unguarded moments, alongside natural wonders—Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Bryce Canyon—and evidence of racial violence, including a formerly enslaved man’s scarred back and the aftermath of the 1911 lynching of an Oklahoma mother and her son. Visually arresting and expertly curated, this is a must-have for fans of Burns’s documentaries. (Oct.)