Doug Levy Meets and Photographs Ken and Sarah Burns for Moon Tide Media

Nov 11, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

What’s your favorite Ken Burns documentary? The sports fan might say "Baseball," the music lover could opt for "Jazz," and the history buff might go with one of his war films — "The Civil War," "The War," "The Vietnam War," something like that. No matter your choice, it’s clear that the inventor of the Ken Burns Effect — panning a camera across still photos to make them look like living, breathing images — is as legendary as any American documentarian.

Bostonian Doug Levy recently photographed Ken and his daughter Sarah (the article’s author) for the August/September issue of “Produced By,” the official magazine of the Producers Guild of America and one which is produced by Moon Tide Media.

This job was done for Moon Tide Media, the company that publishes the magazine for the Producers Guild of America, which is called "Produced By." Their art director found me via a recommendation from a photographer who follows me on Instagram. Ken's daughter, Sarah, was interviewing him for the issue, and the brief was to photograph them together and Ken alone.

Doug Levy's photograph of Ken Burns for Moon Tide Media with his daughter

This was my first shoot with crew since the pandemic started. As this was a fairly high-profile subject — and going to be entirely outside — I wanted to bring my regular first assistant. The only snag was that, despite him living fewer than 10 minutes away from me, we had to make the two-hour ride to Ken's place in separate vehicles. 

Doug Levy's outdoors photograph of Ken Burns for Moon Tide Media

The entirety of the crew was myself, my first assistant Stephen, Ken, and Sarah. Everyone wore masks except when Ken and Sarah were on-camera, and we maintained a safe distance the entire time. Working this way will certainly take some getting used to but having an experienced crew and being able to shoot outside definitely helps. 

Ken, as you might imagine, lives quite well and his spacious property is exactly the kind of location you’d want to shoot at during a pandemic. In a past life, Doug was a professional baseball umpire, so he and Ken chopped it up about the sport during the hour and a half shoot. But even if there wasn’t that common ground, things would’ve gone well because of the Burns’ hospitality.

They were both fantastic. We were told we'd have an hour to scout and setup and an hour with them but ended up wrapping the entire production in 90 minutes. We had a number of setups to execute for the magazine, both portraits of them together as well as more casual interactions, and then Ken alone.

Doug Levy's photograph of Ken Burns on the cover of Produced By magazine

We also had a fairly specific ratio to shoot to for the cover, but we shot tethered for that portion and the magazine provided a blank cover file to ensure we were leaving them enough room. 

Besides baseball, Doug and Ken bonded over the fact that creatives of all kinds are feeling the strain of the pandemic. The same restrictions — and, therefore, frustrations — apply to photographer and filmmaker alike, and it’s a new normal to which all people in the industry need to adapt.

It’s funny — on one hand Ken was our portrait subject, but in a lot of ways, what he does isn't that different from what I do. So many of the COVID restrictions and frustrations I've been dealing with have hit Ken in a similar way. He said that his team was fortunate in that they had some projects in the editing stage, so work on those was able to continue basically uninterrupted. But, like all of us, his team is going to have to get used to a new way of working.

Assistant: Stephen Grigoriou
Art Direction: Ajay Peckham, Moon Tide Media

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