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What do you notice first when you meet someone? When you look at a photo?

I notice the hands and the eyes. Hands will have their own essay somewhere down the line — I’m terribly fond of them, but tonight I want to focus on eyes. Take a minute, go look at yours in the mirror…. I’ll wait. …. …. …. …. ….

OK, you’re back. Could you see today in them? Was it a good one? Are you laughing because you actually went and checked? What story do those eyes want to tell? Are they the color you thought — hey, when was the last time you really looked? They do change. Mine are green-ish. Which basically means some days I get the sun-spiked forests of the Blue Ridge and others a misty blue-green riverbank. Now imagine a camera captures the you staring at you from that mirror. What would someone see?

Wait. I think there are two answers. 1) the subject (in this case you) offers a glimpse inside, “behind the curtain,” as they say and 2) I think the photographer (also you) brings his/her eyes to the shot, which automatically adds a layer of interpretation, a dialogue. Now, it’s a more interesting picture, right?

I’ve watched friends taking photos all summer — all incredibly talented (you know who you are ๐Ÿ˜‰). It’s truly neat — although several of these guys hang so much that they see the same shot when they approach a location, their eyes look at those shots differently, ask different questions. The results often astonish. They capture a detail, a smile, an angle — which, when viewed through their individual lens breathes vibrancy into the captured image.

OK, I’ve tagged this as history and you may wonder how the heck this relates to a book on the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

We can start with the photos. In my files, I have a series of shots of about 75 of the veterans (their average age was 94) taken by a DC reporter who’s dad was one of them. Her photos are imbued with such kindness — the expressions she draws from these old guys are priceless. I contrast these shots with the more professional ones taken by the Signal Corps. In those, you can see respect but not the same intimacy. I just received a new bunch of photos taken at the time and I am so looking forward to seeing yet another perspective.

However I think “eyes” as a topic relates at a more primal level, for my very definition of history calls it an interpretation of yesterday’s stories through today’s eyes. You can see that in the stories of the Reunions themselves. As each age offers its incarnation, the definition of what the Civil War means to American society shifts to fit into the zeitgeist of its era. Make sense?

Hold on, before you assail me for fuzzy logic, I’m not saying there are no historical facts. I’m saying how we use those facts to tell the history of any age is dependent on the perspective of the one doing the telling. In which case, much like the photographer, the historian is drawn into a dialogue with the facts and must render a shot based on the conditions surrounding and the facets revealed of those particular facts. And to stretch the analogy a little further — the historian, like the photographer, chooses where to put the focus — so there could always be something over there, just off camera — that gets left out of the interpretation. Therefore, the next shooter gets to reframe the dialogue and bam! A new picture of an era emerges….

Eye-full songs: In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel); Renaissance Eyes (Don Dixon, these 1st two are probably desert island songs for me ๐Ÿ™‚ ); Light in Your Eyes (the Subdudes); Angel Eyes (check out New Grass Revival’s version, it trounces the original & I don’t say that a lot); Baby Blue Eyes (Joan Armatrading); Brown Eyed Girl (Van Morrison); Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes (Perry Como); Got My Eyes on You (CJ Chenier, he’s Clifton’s son & he’s awesome!!); Hungry Eyes (Eric Carmen, sorry….Baby in the corner moment); If I Had Eyes (Jack Johnson); Lines around Your Eyes (Lucinda Williams); Look Through My Eyes (Everlife); Open your Eyes, You Can Fly (Lizz Wright); Rosalinda’s Eyes (Billy Joel); Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (check out Jerry Garcia’s version); Star Eyes (Charlie Parker); Them There Eyes (Django Reinhardt); Rose Colored Glasses (Animal Logic); and Through Heaven’s Eyes (from the Prince of Egypt soundtrack).

Originality is simply a pair of fresh eyes. –> Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Take care,
Aly

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