Charles Suddarth Kelly gathers scattered "jewels" of Washington history and arranges them in mosaics that are maps of the past.
His gems are usually tattered photographs of cows grazing along what are now busy downtown streets, or traffic jams between streetcars and Model Ts before rules of the road were invented. And it is only by greatly enlarging the old pictures or matching them with later views of the same location that small facts about bygone days in the nation's capital emerge.
Kelly, a photographer and author of the pictorial history "Washington, D.C., Then and Now," returned here last week to give a slide presentation on his latest vision, a planned publication called "The City Magnified." In an interview at the Columbia Historical Society, he talked about his craft and his long love affair with Washington.
"As a young man, I was seduced by Washington," Kelly said, describing his early days planning programming for the town's first television station in 1945. "It is a museum and it is an historical object of art, the whole city is."
This affection drove Kelly to delve into Washington's history. "There are many jewel collections of photographs and splendid books, but they're disparate," he said. "I began to see years ago that by placing pictures from different sources together, suddenly you see this whole business of improvement and development." This juxtaposition of photographs tells the story of the city's growth "in a way that means more than reading a paragraph."
"The City Magnified" includes pictures from the 1860s to the present, and Kelly traces development with a special eye for social history as revealed in street scenes of the various periods. Several series of old photos include repeated enlargements of specific segments to show previously hidden treasures, such as wooden masts of sailing vessels moored at the southern end of what is now 17th Street. In another enlargement, a group of men can be seen gathered around a makeshift scoreboard in the front of the original Washington Post building, waiting for World Series results to be posted -- the common practice before radio and television.
"I like discovering the details in magnification that are revealing as to the nature of the times when the photographs were made," Kelly explained, referring to a picture of a canal with operating barges where Constitution Avenue now runs.
Another series shows views from the top of the Capitol looking down the Mall toward the Washington Monument, over the early buildings of the Smithsonian Institution in the late 1800s, and how the Mall was changed to reflect the design of planner Pierre L'Enfant.
Kelly has spent much of his life looking through a lens, from his early days in television when he directed the first filming of a State of the Union Address and Inaugural Parade, both featuring President Truman in the mid-1940s. He left Washington briefly in the 1960s, then returned to take up still photography and begin his pursuit of "collating" local historical photographs.
During the past 10 years, Kelly has also been making portraits of the many statues around Washington, which he compiled into a collection of 138 photographs and recently donated to the Columbia Historical Society.
"Let us look at their faces," Kelly wrote in an introduction to the photos currently on exhibit at the society. "My intention has been to photograph portrait sculpture as if the subject were human, as the sculptor intended the work to be regarded. Only art of the highest personification qualifies, and Washington abounds in magnificent, heroic, memorial works."
Of Kelly's contribution, Roxanna Deane, director of the Washingtoniana Room at the District's Martin Luther King Memorial Library, said, "It makes historic photography accessible to people who wouldn't otherwise see it. It gets people interested in local history more than a book of text because photography really brings it alive."
The impact of such learning, she said, may be that "it makes people more sensitive to change. Perhaps they'll be more reluctant to see beautiful old buildings come tumbling down."
Larry Baughm, librarian of the Columbia Historical Society, said Kelly's works are a valuable addition to its archives, noting that the sculpture photographs will compliment the more scholarly book of James Goode, "Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C." Kelly has "documented it from a fine art perspective, with a keen sense of emotion and feeling."
Among other endeavors, Kelly has photographed the studio and works of Washington sculptor Felix De Weldon, creator of the Iwo Jima Memorial, and about 50 other works, several of which are in Washington.
A continuing avocation of Kelly's is to travel through Europe following the journal of Thomas Jefferson when he was minister to France from 1784 to 1789. Kelly has taken 700 photographs of the various sites that Jefferson visited, including dozens of vineyards, and hopes to publish them someday as "a big then and now."
Kelly also aims to do a written work "giving proper credit" to the contribution of L'Enfant.
Although Kelly said his efforts are pleasurable, he also has a purpose. "I hope this will inspire people to look at the evolution of change," he said. "Each generation has a different ideal and perception, and so much of the past is junked . . . . Great change commenced here in the 1960s, accelerated in the 1970s, and it's moving like a 747 without a pilot now." Kelly said he is not "a doomsayer," but he admitted, "I regret the loss of some things that were favorites to me."
Kelly now lives in a New York City apartment, where he has a darkroom, collects photographs and misses Washington.