Washington filmmaker creates ‘Of Time and the River: Portrait of a New England Town’
WASHINGTON — For the last year, Alfred Kelman has been consumed by his hometown, watching it through the lens of an old film camera. He has photographed its natural beauty, its houses and churches, its schools, its events and its people, attempting to capture the history and uniqueness.
“It’s a unique town, to be sure, but it’s also a New England town, so you recognize it immediately — you know that it’s New England,” Kelman said.
The result is “Of Time and The River: Portrait of a New England Town,” a collection of photographs of Washington that are arranged by seasons, starting with the bleak winter, when the trees are bare and the scenes are exposed to the sky and the land, and ending in the fall, when color takes on a mysterious quality and sheds golden light on everything it touches.
Kelman, a film producer who has always done his best work behind a lens, found himself at a standstill in 2017 when the original plan for “Tales of the River” became overwhelming.
“I had an idea to take national events and connect them to the town, somehow, but it was too big — it was too much,” Kelman said, in an interview in one of his favorite haunts, Marty’s Cafe. “So I thought, let’s treat Washington as a campus, and find visions of that campus and create a story, structured by the seasons. I wanted to feel the seasons in the book.”
Hiring photographers to do the work proved to be costly, and the determined Kelman wanted the book done a certain way. His desire to share what he loves about Washington was undaunted.
That desire led Kelman to pick up his old Olympus 35 millimeter, load it with film, and begin taking photographs himself. As a filmmaker, he said, putting Washington’s many faces inside a frame was the answer.
“I see everything in a frame — the churches, the people, the town itself — and that was how it started for me,” he said. “I photographed everything. I went everywhere.”
A collection of envelopes, each holding a collection of negatives, began to build, and Kelman had to decide how to show them. He didn’t want to tell a story, necessarily, but rather allow a chosen sentence or verse to complete the image. Poetry was the answer for him.
“I got the idea to search the poets of the world, to comment on these moments I was taking, and the first time, I Googled ‘a winter’s day’ and came up with Shakespeare,” Kelman said. “Frost, Sandberg ... and about a month ago, it all came together. When I make a film, it all starts with locations ... that’s the earliest vision of a film. When I made ‘The Plot to Kill Hitler,’ six months was spent on location, getting the feeling of the place where it all happened.
“So I looked at all these events (photographed) in winter, and then I waited for spring, and took more pictures, and then I took them in the heat of the summer, and then into the fall. Each time I looked at a photograph, I found some poem, or a song, that would accompany it.”
An example of his method: Kelman photographed scenes from the Washington Supply Company, where activity is constant. There are men working, and piles of wood, and tools grinding and buzzing.
“I looked up ‘lumber’ and found a poem called ‘Buzzing’ and it was perfect,” Kelman said. “It fell into place, every time.”
Capturing his beloved Washington on film — real film — was important. “I was getting the beauty of film stock versus digital images, where you get all the nuances of the scene,” he said. “I used my Olympus, because it’s what I have used for 30 years. I was everywhere.”
He took his images to 86 Street Photo in New York City, where they were processed, and eventually began to plan the pages for the book. Kelman developed a working relationship with the photo department manager there, and together they began choosing images for the seasonal pages of the book.
“The book went through a number of titles, but I always loved ‘Time and the River,’ because the lifeline and the story line of Washington is the Shepaug River,” Kelman said. “The Shepaug gives Washington its history, and it’s here because of it, and places like Steep Rock (Washington’s preserve). It controls its development, it controls its growth. That’s why the Shepaug River is on the cover of the book. It’s where it all begins.”
The photographs Kelman took were often happenstance — he would start out on a mission to take a picture of a certain place, and come upon something completely by surprise — a stately tree would catch his eye, or sunlight would land on a house’s window in such a way that he was called to take its picture.
Then there are events: the annual, massive church tag sale, encompassing the parish grounds; Memorial Day, with marching children and firemen; the garden club touring his own back yard, where summer flowers fill the air with color and fragrance; his wife, Janice, walking through the grass with her dog. And for each collection or single image, a poem joins it on the page.
“For the garden tour, I found ‘Our Garden’ by Kipling,” Kelman said. “On Memorial Day, I chose ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls.’ The verses, for me, are essential, to have an identifying idea in my head.”
Kelman also included bits of history for his readers — a writing of the Averill family, which has called Washington home for 900-plus years; a tribute to architect Eric Rossiter, whose designs found a place in Washington; the library, where stories of the town’s past can be found; and the schools, public and private, where children from around the world have learned their letters and numbers.
Now that the collection is completed, Kelman has high hopes that the book will become a collectible for anyone who finds it.
“Of Time and The River: Portrait of a New England Town,” by Alfred Kelman, will be available for purchase in the early spring and will be launched with a book signing at the Hickory Stick Bookstore in Washington Depot. Advance orders can be made to Kelman at firstname.lastname@example.org; the cost is $39.95.