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Paul Kwilecki Remembered

Paul Kwilecki, 2009. Cell phone photograph by Tom Rankin.

Paul Kwilecki, born in 1928 in Bainbridge, Georgia, died in his hometown in early December 2009. Kwilecki had been associated with the Center for Documentary Studies and Duke University since the late 1970s; the Paul Kwilecki Collection was one of the first and most prominent collections to be acquired by the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library’s Archive of Documentary Arts.

Perhaps the most important late-twentieth-century photographer you’ve heard little to nothing about, Kwilecki spent most of his days in his hometown and county, schooling himself by carefully studying contemporary photography and corresponding with a range of artists and photographers, most notably and regularly David Vestal. In 1981 he published Understandings (University of North Carolina Press), which was edited by Alex Harris.

Kwilecki set out to photograph his home in Decatur County, Georgia, and did so for over forty years. He often would say that his hometown was “a place that some say has no meaning.” But like William Faulkner, who stayed home to create his remarkable body of literature, Kwilecki had a different vision. “The task is complicated,” he said at a lecture at Duke in 2001. “I am one man, one mind, one pair of eyes trying to distinguish what is significant in an entire community.” He went about this work with a deep honesty, following his own instincts, his own point of view. “I rearrange the sacred furniture,” he said. “Because my brain, not my camera, is my instrument, beauty isn’t enough.”

Paul Kwilecki was a dear friend of the Center for Documentary Studies, someone who will forever provide an example of in-depth documentary work about one place through time. “I photograph subjects who are, to me, vivid and substantial,” he once said. “I leave everything else alone.”

—Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies

5 Responses to “Paul Kwilecki Remembered”

  1. Ruth Fryer says:

    Mr. Kwilecki was my neighbor for many years. He was a great man that lived an upstanding life. I was always intrigued by his “brain” as I know that is where his beautiful photography came from. Growing up in Decatur County, Georgia, sometimes it is hard to see the beauty in our area. I know he was a genius to pull the beauty out of seemingly ordinary situations there. He is dearly missed by his family, friends, neighbors and his dog “Reb”…

  2. Nathan Holt says:

    Mr. Kwilecki was indeed a remarkable photographer. I also grew up in Decatur County, and have always felt in some ways privileged to be able to bring this background–this “understanding”–to my encounters with Mr. Kwilecki’s work. As a person with this additional bit of understanding, I can only say that there is poetry and fierceness and honesty and compassion and very deep thought in his photographs. What seems at first a geographical limitation appears, on closer examination, to be something much deeper. To photograph those with whom you live and do business, those whose parent and children and cousins you know, those whom you will see again–and again, those whose secrets you know too, either individually or collectively or both–all this took a rare kind of courage. It also yields an astonishing body of art. We are blessed that he lived among us.

  3. Lee Beasley says:

    I’m saddened to learn of Paul’s death, and my belated sympathies go out to his family. In October 1981 I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul about his work. Paul and his wife Charlotte graciously welcomed me in their home, and over two days Paul drove me around Decatur County, pointing out those places that moved him and talked about his objectives in pursuing his “projects” as he called his photographic series. The article appeared in the October 11 issue of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Sunday magazine supplement, Atlanta Weekly. I tried to capture in words what Paul was up to, so that the paper’s readers would know what a treasure lived among them. I hope I succeeded, and I especially hope that Paul was honored by the piece.

  4. Hoke Smith says:

    Mr. Kwilecki introduced me to the world of photography in 1970 when he volunteered his time to mentor the members of the Photography Club at Bainbridge High School. He influenced my early years of photography by concentrating in black and white and he influenced me to this day by looking into the human psyche. H was always interested in people and the story he could tell from behind the lens.

    I followed him over the years and he and his work was known by many photographers I have spoken to over the years. They all respected his work and were pleased if I commented that that their work reminded me of Paul’s work.

    He was also a very good tennis player who I played (and lost to) many times.

  5. […] Center for Documentary Studies described Paul Kwilecki (1928-2009) as “perhaps the most important late-twentieth-century photographer […]

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