Early life and education
Burns was born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns, a biotechnician, and Robert Kyle Burns, at the time a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in Manhattan. The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is his younger brother.
Burns' academic family moved frequently. Among places they called home were Saint-Véran, France; Newark, Delaware; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father taught at the University of Michigan. Burns' mother was found to have breast cancer when he was three, and she died when he was 11, a circumstance that he said helped shape his career; he credited his father-in-law, a psychologist, with a significant insight: "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive." Well-read as a child, he absorbed the family encyclopedia, preferring history to fiction.
Upon receiving an 8 mm film movie camera for his 17th birthday, he shot a documentary about an Ann Arbor factory. He graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor in 1971. Turning down reduced tuition at the University of Michigan, he attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where students are graded through narrative evaluations rather than letter grades and where students create self-directed academic concentrations instead of choosing a traditional major. He worked in a record store to pay his tuition. Living on as little as $2,500 for two years in Walpole, New Hampshire he would study under photographers Jerome Liebling, Elaine Mayes, and others. Burns earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies and design in 1975.