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Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States

“Of the numerous illustrated books released at this time of year in hopes of gracing American coffee tables at Christmas, few will be as visually compelling as ‘Eyes of the Nation,’ a showcase of the vast holdings of the Library of Congress.”

--Eric Foner, L.A. Times

Created with Alan Brinkley and the Curators of the Library of Congress, Eyes of the Nation was my first book with the Library and it was acclaimed by Vanity Fair as “stupendous visual history.” The book was transformed into a CD-ROM with over 5,000 images, including movie clips, songs, and oral histories.

Appearing alongside such pivotal artifacts as an Indian treaty from 1714 and a wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth are fascinating nuggets of popular culture and social history. Full, detailed captions put everything in context; they were written by the Library’s curators and me. Four album-like interludes explore elemental themes of the American experience: the garden, the river, the city, and our people.

To create this book, I asked the curators to bring me what they loved most. I didn’t want to see the familiar things, but the things that got my colleagues out of bed in the morning. To work with a group like the Library’s curators and specialists and cataloguers is to be in a state of grace. When you are with them you are immersed in a passionate, enthusiastic, and fiercely smart realm. Such experiences change one’s life forever.

Take Ronald Grim, for example, who was the cartographic historian in the Library’s Geography and Map Division. When we were introduced, I said: “I don’t get maps.” He put his head on the table and proclaimed: “That is the story of my life!” I started babbling: “Oh, they are always too small in books. I can’t read roadmaps—too much information! And most historians are visually illiterate; they are word people who never use maps to tell me anything beyond how to get from x to y.” It was Ron who taught me how to look at maps, how to read them as cultural landscapes, as snapshots of the past. It was he who made me understand that maps are a means of time travel. They give us entry into the minds and imaginations of the people who made them. All maps have agendas. I was fascinated to learn that most cartographic historians, map collectors, and map dealers are also visually illiterate. They are concerned only with how, when, where, and when a map was made. WHY a map was made is of little or no interest to most of them.

I learned from a coven of map people led by the great J. P. Harley that a map is a social document serving many functions. It is a representation of knowledge, an archival device, a concordance of the world and its image. A map is a dream, an idea, an action, an emblem of human endeavor. It instigates adventures. Maps encompass the entirety of what is beheld. They are the result of holistic perception, of the fact that our eyes are constantly traveling. Our eyes have evolved into expert observers of landscape, the eyes of hunters and gatherers, of the hunted and the assembled. Careful perceptions of our surroundings have always been matters of life and death.

I am a visual person. Like a map, I store information visually. Looking is my vocation. Sharing it has been my joy. I love my life, in a large part because I love my work. I know the importance of the looking I do. I feel blessed that I spend many of my days communing with pictures for my own books and, as a successful picture editor, helping gifted, accomplished authors reconstruct their own lives and the lives of others with pictures.

Like every other human, I needed to be taught how to walk, talk, identify colors, forms and shapes, and signs–such as letters and numbers–and how to combine those sings in order to read, write, and do math. Art classes, movies that told stories in images, and complex picture books with informative captions that put images in a social context were used to teach me how to combine all the forms and shapes around me in order to look at what I saw. They gave me my visual vocabulary.

As a child of the 20th century, I used images made by cameras as my principle access to realities–sometimes unpleasant–of which I had no direct experience. Pictures confirmed that events really did happen. They were my primary means of travel. They gave me glimpses of the past, grounded me in the present, and offered notions of the future. They formed my identity as an American. The great ones moved me profoundly. They inflamed me with rage and desire. They enlightened and held me spellbound. They gave me the grace of awareness and helped form my social conscience. It is no wonder my eyes are called the windows of my soul. The art of looking is for me a physical, mental, and spiritual occupation. I look, therefore I am.

Out of Eyes of the Nation grew Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations. If maps were an integral part of the human creative process, I wanted to know how different societies expressed themselves through maps. It took me eight years of exploration in the palace of knowledge that is the Library of Congress to answer my questions about maps and the world’s great civilizations.

Now with the major New York publishing houses resisting the creation of complex picture books due to their immense costs, I find myself—a picture editor—an endangered species. I believe that looking and acknowledging what we see happening around us today has never been more essential to the survival of our great American experiment. I want to do something with my decades of experience putting pictures to work. I want people to join me in introducing my vocation of looking into high schools, public libraries, art schools, community colleges, and regional cultural centers by creating a foundation–The Visual Conservancy–to give beautiful, meaningful, high-end, innovative (in form as well as content), enticing picture books free to wherever young people will find and be able to enjoy them.

The Visual Conservancy and its Picture Book Press will exist to reinvent the picture book as a vital documentary medium in American society for everyone. Our programs will help teach the art of looking. PBP will publish visual histories and visual anthologies of the great masters. My goal is to publish, and employ photographers to travel the country using their personal work to work for us. Since books are at the center of the enterprise, our foundation’s annual search for a new, young photographer will result in a book for the winning project and an ongoing support system to launch a professional career in the world of American documentary photography. We will raise money via print sales from our list of books, portfolios, artist’s proof books, traveling shows and lecture series... all that heaven allows when doing something becomes our way of life. We will anchor our rapidly changing world in American minds one picture book at a time.