Both nourished and wounded

April 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

A new book celebrates Paul Kwilecki's photographs.

A new book celebrates Paul Kwilecki’s photographs of his hometown.

PAUL KWILECKI was born in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 1928 and died there in 2009. In between, he raised a family, ran the family’s hardware store, and taught himself how to use a camera. Over four decades, he documented life in his community, making hundreds of masterful and intimate black-and-white prints.

Kwilecki developed his visual ideas in series of photographs of high school proms, prison hog killings, shade-tree tobacco farming, factory work, church life, the courthouse. He also wrote eloquently about the people and places he so poignantly depicted, and in this book his unique knowledge is powerfully articulated in more than 200 photographs and selected prose.

Paul Kwilecki worked alone, his correspondence with other photographers his only link to the larger art world. While Kwilecki ranks among the most important American documentary photographers of the 20th century, he is also one of the least well known. “Decatur County is home,” he said, “and I know it from my special warp, having been both nourished and wounded by it.”

An excerpt from Paul Kwilecki’s essay “Decatur County” in One Place

“I am frequently asked by people who have not seen my work why I spend my life documenting one simple place like Decatur County, Georgia. 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.

Decatur County, like all places, was shaped by its history and geography. Real circumstances are richer than anything we can invent, and photographs made from them have unique credibility and economy. When one searches for a specific image, he blinds himself to everything else. He is apt to let a possible photograph pass unnoticed that is better than what he set out to find. For several years, I was fascinated by old photographs on gravestones. I carefully sifted through every cemetery I knew. On a dreary day I was walking through an isolated graveyard in a remote part of the county. Cows were grazing just outside. I passed a monument topped by a marble lamb quietly watching them. It was both droll and, because of the light and the misting rain, beautiful. I like the resulting photograph better than any of my pictures of pictures on gravestones.

As the project grew some problems became vexingly abstract. I discovered slowly over a long period of time that while I was making photographs of specific places and individuals, I was also getting from the series a collective sentiment, something stronger and more pointed than the individual images. It was an effect worth striving to enhance. It required an enormous amount of contemplation, both of the photographs in the series and of my affections and sympathies for the material. I tried to gain a sense of what was missing and the direction I should take to properly move forward.

To most people and by any objective appraisal Decatur County is aesthetically banal. The previous generation who created it could barely afford to be expedient, much less stylish. Most photographers would decide from a superficial assessment that there was little to photograph. But in important ways Decatur County is the perfect artifact and documents the quality and values of our predecessor’s sojourn.

The instinct to survive and understand something of life, to love and be loved, to maintain a certain dignity, self-respect, and attain some degree of success, at least in our own eyes, motivate us consciously and unconsciously. We have our work, our faith, our social and economic constraints to deal with, and it is on one or more of these fronts that our major battles are joined. Decatur County is neither simple nor insignificant. Life there is like life everywhere, and I cannot think of a higher goal than understanding what we can of it.”

MORE: “A life sold on photography
EARLIER: “A place called home

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