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RI exec assists Ken Burns on Dust Bowl film

Associated Press Modified: November 17, 2012 at 11:16 am •  Published: November 17, 2012

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — It was during a lunch break more than 30 years ago that Jim Pontarelli starting combing through the Dust Bowl photographs.

He was an aide to then-Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee with what he called a "secret ambition" to become a photographer. So the Narragansett resident would hole up at the Library of Congress whenever he could, pulling pictures that documented the worst ecological disaster ever to strike the U.S — through the face of a migrant mother with her children huddled against her, through abandoned farms, through the dunes of dirt. He bought some of the old equipment the photographers had used to make those pictures, built a darkroom in his basement and became a student of their ways.

Pontarelli's work took him away from photography and into communications, but the images would return in a way he never considered. For the past 3½ years, drawing on his decades-old knowledge of that photo collection, the 54-year-old has been helping award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns on a documentary about the Dust Bowl. The two-part series is set to air Sunday and Monday on PBS.

"It was not just the photos, but it was the people in the photos, it was the individuals and the families and the stories that they represented that really hooked me on that body of work," said Pontarelli, president of RDW Group, a communications agency headquartered in Providence.

Burns said Pontarelli was a critical part of the research and brought thoughtfulness and sophistication to his countless hours of work.

"We're just still shaking our heads in awe," Burns said.

Pontarelli came to know Burns through fundraising he and a colleague were doing for historical Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where the filmmaker had interned while attending Hampshire College.

Burns mentioned he was working on a project on the Dust Bowl, and Pontarelli told him about his knowledge of the Farm Security Administration collection, a pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944 that depicts the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Burns, who has made films on such topics as baseball, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Civil War, draws heavily from historical still photographs in his works.

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