Though Paul Kwilecki lived through almost all of the first decade of the 21st century, he occupied a different time. In the absence of the internet, details about isolated artists--even superficial ones--were hard to come by unless you came into their circle or encountered one of their proud disciples. In Kwilecki's case, the documentary photographer left this world with only one book credit, first published 28 years before by a university press. His transition to an online existence seems largely the result of labors undertaken by people who knew him personally in one way or another--a student, an editor, a friend--but the strength of his work has now started to shoulder the workload to a wider audience.
Born in 1928 in Bainbridge, Decatur County, not far from where the Flint River flows into Lake Seminole in southwest Georgia, Kwilecki grew up and continued into adulthood surrounded by neighbors and fellow citizens of the small, blue-collar town. When he discovered photography, he took on Decatur County as his own long-term project, making thousands of images of life and circumstances that he was just as much a part of as he was an observer.
He photographed buildings and people, and because he never had commercial success or was "discovered" and exhibited in places far from home, his photographs became not just documents but references. The people he photographed across decades--black Pentecostal preachers, shop-owners, factory workers--aged alongside him, caught up in their daily work just as he was. He also provided an individual measurement for the changes in landscape and architecture, highlighting the effects of weather, time, and vandalism--sometimes aggregate, sometimes immediate--on buildings, parks, and cemetery statues.
In a talk he gave at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1994, Kwilecki said:
Photography in my life is like Jehovah: demanding and jealous but supremely nourishing. If I could I would do nothing but photograph. Publication, itself an enigma, is a form of marketing, and marketing of all kinds is a distraction Jehovah doesn't suffer well.
Still, publication was a longtime dream of Kwilecki's and perhaps not just because there is a yearning to migrate toward any border of acknowledgment in the heart of every artist whose work is prolific but homebound. By tying his work so closely with Decatur and its high schoolers, its lake-sitters, its clerks and its criminals, he possibly hoped to elevate them all beyond familiarity. That might be why he called his first book Understandings--an invitation to pass into close proximity to these people just as he had, to lean in close enough to enjoy their sweat or sweetness.
In 1981, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in North Carolina (then the Center for Documentary Photography) received funding to start a book series, and Kwilecki was chosen to have the inaugural book. Its lack of success shaped Kwilecki's future endeavors and stifled his marketability, but he never stopped photographing. This past year, the CDS published One Place, the book Kwilecki always wanted, a grand, heavy collection of 40 years of his work. Hardcover. The big time. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it, or the accompanying exhibit that originated on Duke's campus and travels to the Ogden Museum of Art in late summer 2014.
Kwilecki's photographs are perhaps finding more traction in the online world because of the far off world they depict. For the vintage photo junkie, here is one voice describing a wide array of settings and characters. Here is a tonic and time capsule for the Southerner like me who grew up in a rural or small town and doesn't recognize it in our national makeover-obsessed culture. There is a deep vein to be mined for people sensitive to the history of class, race, religion, and design (that is to say, humanists), and for fellow photographers themselves there is a course in Noticing easily audited and taught by example.
In an essay in the book, Kwilecki writes:
People confuse simple with small; they’re not the same thing. There are no simple places or simple lives. The problems Decatur Countians face may be different from the problems of urban life, but they are no less threatening and therefore exacting. Fulfillment and self-respect are as necessary but elusive in Decatur County as elsewhere.
Kwilecki, no doubt, was speaking from experience. By being a man able to divide his fascination with his town from his preoccupation with it and use the better half, he found sustenance in his own art.
The Archive of Documentary Arts, Duke University and the Estate of Paul Kwilecki hold the copyright for all images presented. See the complete collection of photographs and written documents by Kwilecki here.