Local Exec Helps Ken Burns on Latest Documentary

The documentary, called The Dust Bowl, can be seen on PBS this Sunday and Monday.



Father and sons in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. (Farm Security Administration collection, Library of Congress).

Arthur Rothstein

So what’s it like to help acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns make a documentary? What began was a hobby more than three decades ago for Jim Pontarelli has developed into an assisting role in a vibrant account of a challenging time in American history. Pontarelli, the president of the RDW Group in Providence, spent more than four years helping Burns research photographs for his new film, The Dust Bowl. It airs this Sunday and Monday on PBS and Pontarelli says its lessons are very timely. Here’s some of the back story:

How did you get involved with the film?

My personal interest goes back about thirty-two years. When I left Providence College, I moved down to Washington and went to graduate school and I was working for Senator John Chafee in his office. But I had a secret desire to be a photographer. I was learning photography and one day I stumbled upon the Farm Security Administration collection of photographs at the Library of Congress, which was just a few blocks away from my office. It’s just filing cabinet upon filing cabinet of unbelievably poignant and beautiful, in a way, photographs of the Depression and the Dust Bowl in particular. I used to go almost every day at lunchtime, I would go on weekends, I would go at night, and I would study those photographs. I acquired some of the equipment they used to use, learned how to photograph the way they did. It really became kind of a passion for me. Some of those photographers became some of the greatest photographers in American history, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein.

I maintained that interest over time and then fast forward to April 2009. (RDW vice president) Dante Bellini and I, through the RDW Group, were doing some fundraising with Ken. That was my initial introduction. Dante and I have since done work with him and become very close with him. One day he mentioned that he was going to tackle the Dust Bowl as a documentary and I mentioned to him my expertise in the (Farm Security Administration) collection and he signed me up to be on the team focused specifically on photographs from that collection.

It was very exciting and it was uncanny. I hadn’t been in that reading room for thirty some-odd years and I went down and everything was exactly the same way that it was back then. They were the exact same filing cabinets. I knew exactly where they were, I knew in which drawers to find which photographs. It was just amazing to just step back in time like that. So that was my role in the film, to pull the photographs, working with a producer, her name was Eileen Silverstone, she’s worked on a number of films with Ken. I would travel down to Washington with her a few days at a time and each trip we would pull four hundred, five hundred photographs. We’d examine them for appropriateness and then we’d photograph them and catalog them. And that became the working body of images for the film.

Also, with the Farm Administration photographs, there’s a large body of correspondence from the photographers. They were on the road with their cameras and they would be writing letters back and forth with the home office in Washington and they would be sending film back and getting fresh film and they would be describing their activities and what they were seeing. And Roy Stryker, who ran the photo unit for the Farm Administration, would be giving them instructions for the kind of images he wanted. It was a critical time because Life and Look magazines had just stated publishing. The big picture magazines and newspapers had just started and the government was using those new vehicles to help gather support for their social programs. It was really great public relations by Roosevelt at the time.

But what I was able to do was go through a lot of that correspondence and track where the photographers were in the Dust Bowl in particular, which helped the Ken Burns teams that went out to do actual interviews and field research. They would place ads in newspapers to have meetings with survivors. They would collect personal photographs from survivors…it was really quite an operation. It’s this iterative process of storytelling based on the documentary evidence that we were able to collect.

Stryker knew the talents and the perspectives of his individual photographers. He was able to tell a different story by deploying and assigning different photographers to a region or a subject matter. Dorothea Lange captured some of the up close and personal images of the Depression. "The Migrant Mother" is probably the most iconic image from the Depression. That was a family from Oklahoma, but not from the Dust Bowl, in a migrant camp in California. So she took those up close and personal kind of shots. And Rothstein was great at capturing the menace of the Dust Bowl and the sweeping landscape. His most famous image was of a father and two young boys who were walking through a dust storm by their farmhouse. That’s probably the most iconic image of the Dust Bowl proper. And then Russell Lee was more of a “good photographer,” and he took a lot of the images later on, when Stryker wanted to tell the story about the region coming back to normalcy, about the social welfare and Roosevelt’s economic programs taking hold and working. Lee was the perfect photographer to tell that story, so they deployed him later in the Dust Bowl, which ran from about 1932 to about 1939. I have such a strong feeling about these images and the story that they told that I like to feel in some very small way that I am helping Ken carry the story forward.

Why tune in?

We can learn a lot about the current social policies and social programs that we enjoy today and why they came about, because it really was a tipping point in the development of the federal government’s role in social policy. Roosevelt pushed that forward. It was the Depression and the Dust Bowl was kind of a disaster within a disaster. Those events allowed him to respond in a way that helped people who otherwise would not have been helped. So as we look back today and question the role of government’s value in society, it’s important to understand why our government and social policy has evolved the way it has. I think it’s also on a personal level important to remember the sacrifices and the struggles that those who have gone before us have gone through and the perseverance that was required to overcome those challenges and the resiliency of the American people. We are a strong people and no one can tell the story better than Ken can.

It’s also interesting from another perspective in that we’re dealing with some dramatic changes in our environment. And this was an ecological disaster. It was caused by a drought, but it was certainly exacerbated by the Great Plow-Up of the southern plains. The drought would not have done what it did if we had not plowed up all of the grassland in the southern plains to produce wheat. It was in many ways a man-made ecologicial disaster and I don’t think there’s enough debate right now about whether we’re doing the same thing to our environment today. I would argue that there are certainly some lessons to be learned about the interplay between our actions and the environment and what the consequences would be.

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