Like a large part of the nation, I have been watching Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Dust Bowl.” Burns is a master of the art form. He has an effective formula: still photos augmented with video clips, if they exist; a silver tongued narrator, here Peter Coyote; interviews with eyewitnesses; and underscoring with folksy tunes, here strummed and sung by Woody Guthrie. I have been admiring and amazed at the quality, the sharpness and tonality, of the photographs. They look as if they were not eighty to ninety years old but very modern and taken yesterday.
Well, there’s something curious going on here. I’m not sure to what degree the images have been restored and enhanced – I need to explore that a bit. But what is interesting is that Burns has turned the tables on us. Usually black and white pictures convey, and are used to convey, a sense of age. And you can throw in a dash of sepia toning to emphasize the effect. Here we think, and are meant to think, that these look so modern like they were taken yesterday. He shows you a vibrant image of a baby or a young child and you say “what a beautiful little girl.” And then he tells you, or better still, has a family member tell you how she died a terrible death due to “black dust pneumonia.” It is absolutely heart-wrenching.
We have been talking about how when you see a person in an antique photograph you naturally wonder, what happened to the person. Here we see the effect of making the image appear modern so that you can directly relate to the person and the catastrophe they experienced. These events are not in the remote past, but could happen to you or someone you know tomorrow.
We see in these pictures the continued relevancy of black and white imagery. They remain profoundly able to elicit psychological effect. Even in the absence of color photography can provide a truly subtle pallet for the manipulation of human emotion.