Anyone can take a picture.
“I think photography is such a strange medium because of this,” said photographer Tom Rankin.
“Everyone is walking around with a camera right now, but when you find somebody that can develop and sustain a vision over time, that is what a real photographer is,” said Rankin, who is director of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University. “Paul Kwilecki is one of the perfect people to look at to see this distinction.”
Through Oct. 5, “One Place: Paul Kwilecki and Four Decades of Photographs from Decatur County, Georgia,” is on exhibit at the CDS, 1317 W. Pettigrew St., Durham.
The show, which features 45 black-and-white photographs by Kwilecki and an installation that is an interpretation of his office in Bainbridge in Decatur County, Ga., is a direct result of a book that Rankin and Kwilecki collaborated on.
In 1981, The University of North Carolina Press published, “Understandings: Photographs of Decatur County, Georgia,” by Kwilecki. The book introduced Rankin, then in his early 20s, to Kwilecki, who was in the middle of his career.
Kwilecki was the grandson of Jewish immigrants who owned a hardware store in Bainbridge and were community leaders.
“Paul had no interest in working as a merchant, but he did work there until the store was sold,” Rankin said. The sale freed Kwilecki to pursue photography full time.
But this passion did not provoke him to travel, to seek out unfamiliar landscapes or people. When Kwilecki died in 2009, he had spent 40 years photographing the people, the events, the landscape and everything in between in Decatur County.
“Eugène Atget, the French documentary photographer, did something similar, and you can say that William Faulkner did it, but not many people have the attention span, obsession, or tenacity to do this,” Rankin said.
In 2001, Rankin invited Kwilecki to visit Duke. It was the first time the two had met, and a kinship rapidly formed.
“I was taken by this idea of somebody working sort of off the grid in a way that can give somebody a vision that is not endlessly in reaction to other visions going on around you,” Rankin said.
“Yet he was starved for attention, of word from the larger photographic world. He wanted his work to be noticed,” Rankin said. “He had that almost unbelievable faith that if he were not noticed now, he would be someday. His favorite stories to tell were about artists that died unknown but were later recognized. Public opinion is often off, and that is sort of how he saw the world.”
‘Furniture of my homeplace’
But Kwilecki was off. His star began to rise while he was alive, and he won two Guggenheim Fellowships, grants that are given to people with extraordinary creative output or ability in the arts, one in the late ’70s and another in the early ’80s, Rankin said.
“Validation only lasts so long, and in 2001, he was talking about doing another book,” Rankin said. “He still wanted to make his ultimate comprehensive comment on his county, and this is what this new book tries to do.”
The book, which Rankin and Kwilecki collaborated on until Kwilecki died in 2009 and which shares the same name as the CDS exhibit, was published in April by The UNC Press and has 220 photographs. Iris Tillman-Hill, the CDS book editor, was co-editor.
Rankin explained that Kwilecki would decide to photograph a certain topic, such as tobacco farming, and then would do a big body of work on the subject.
“Clearly he photographed what interested him and left everything else alone,” Rankin said. “Paul said that he rearranged the sacred furniture of my homeplace.’”
The grandeur of Kwilecki’s prose rises to the éclat of his photographs. He wrote, “Decatur County is in the southwest corner of Georgia. Its southern border joins Florida and its western border is less than thirty miles from Alabama. Every day thirty thousand lives unfold. Men and women get up, go to work, return home, and go to bed. Between rising and going to bed they grow into their particularity. Life at the courthouse goes on simultaneously with life in factories. Prayer meetings overlap shopping. Sunday picknickers are clerks and teachers on Monday. Every citizen wears many hats, and all the while houses stand looking out on their streets and cemeteries silently wait.”
Courtney Reid-Eaton, the CDS’ exhibitions director, created the installation of Kwilecki’s office.
“Paul was a self-taught photographer, and he learned about photography through correspondence, books and magazines,” Reid-Eaton said. “He wrote to John Szarkowski and Ansel Adams, and they replied.” Many of these letters are reproduced for visitors to read. Rankin believes that Kwilecki is one of the most important American documentary photographers of the 20th century.
Reid-Eaton hopes that visitors will come often to see this show, or the show Tiksi, a group of 23 tantalizing photographs of Siberia by Evgenia Arbugaeva that opened Sept. 16. See www.documentarystudies.duke.edu/about for events related to this exhibit.
“I think many people are of the opinion that you go and spend a half an hour looking and then, you are done,” Reid-Eaton said. “But what you may miss the first time may reveal itself to you on the third visit.”
Rankin remains enthralled by Kwilecki’s labors.
“This is a body of work about a very particular place, a county in southwest Georgia but yet is also a body of work about something universal,” Rankin said. “It is about the American South but it is also beyond that. It is about how people make lives in ordinary places and ordinary places exist everywhere. In some ways, it is also about the enduring way of photography – seeing a place over time.”
Deborah R. Meyer writes about the visual arts each month. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org