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One Place: Paul Kwilecki and Four Decades of Photographs from Decatur County, Georgia 

Edited and with an introduction by Tom Rankin, coedited by Iris Tillman Hill

Published by the University of North Carolina Press and CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies
272 pages | 10.25 x 10.25 | 201 duotone photographs
$45.00, hardcover | ISBN 978-1-4696-0740-5
$45.00 e-book | ISBN 978-1-4696-0740-6
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Available in April 2013 in bookstores or by ordering from the University of North Carolina Press

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 Paul ranks among the most important American documentary photographers of the twentieth 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.”

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Audio Slideshow

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Events and Exhibitions

July 24–September 21, 2014
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
University of New Orleans
925 Camp Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70130

Opening Reception, Talk, and Book Signing
April 4, 2014, 7–10 p.m.
Alice & Williams Jenkins Gallery: 
Reception, Talk and Book Signing, 7–8:30 p.m.,
Hannibal Square Heritage Center Gallery: 
Blues Performance and Continued Reception, 8:30–10 p.m.
Crealdé School of Art
600 St. Andrews Blvd., Winter Park, Florida 32792
April 4–June 29, 2014 
Alice & Williams Jenkins Gallery and the Hannibal Square Heritage Center Gallery
Crealdé School of Art
600 St. Andrews Blvd., Winter Park, Florida 32792
Panel Discussion: Documentary Photography Books
March 27, 2014, 10:30 a.m.
Oxford Conference for the Book
Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics

University of Mississippi
Oxford, Mississippi
Opening Reception
February 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Firehouse Center and Gallery

Bainbridge-Decatur County Council for the Arts

119 West Water Street, Bainbridge, Georgia 39817

February 13–March 2, 2014
Firehouse Center and Gallery
Bainbridge-Decatur County Council for the Arts
119 West Water Street, Bainbridge, Georgia 39817
More Information
Talk and Book Signing
October 30, 2013, 12 p.m.
In the Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture Series
American Folklife Center, The Library of Congress
Whittall Pavilion, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building
First Street, SE, between Independence and East Capitol Streets, Washington, D.C. 20540
Talk and Book Signing
September 24, 2013, 12:30 p.m.
What’s Up Down South talk, with William Ferris
Event location: Donovan Lounge, Room 223, Greenlaw Hall
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599
Talk and Book Signing
September 18, 2013, 7 p.m.
Hillsborough Literary Association at the Burwell School
319 Churton Street, Hillsborough, North Carolina 27278
Talk and Book Signing
August 31, 2013, 12:30 p.m.
AJC Decatur Book Festival, City Hall Stage
101 East Court Square, Decatur, Georgia 20030
Talk, Book Signing, and Reception
April 25, 2013, 6–9 p.m.; talk by Tom Rankin at 7 p.m.
Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
1317 W. Pettigrew Street, Durham, North Carolina 27705

March 18–October 5, 2013
Kreps and Lyndhurst Galleries
Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
1317 W. Pettigrew Street, Durham, North Carolina 27705

Photographs in the exhibition are from Paul Kwilecki Photographs and Papers in the Archive of Documentary Arts at David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University

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Photo Gallery

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About the Authors

Paul Kwilecki (1928–2009) is the author of Understandings: Photographs of Decatur County, Georgia. Tom Rankin directs both the Center for Documentary Studies and the Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts (MFAEDA) at Duke University. Iris Tillman Hill, former CDS director, is coeditor of the Documentary Arts and Culture series.

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Praise for One Place

“An epic of ghostly ordinariness.”
Roy Blount Jr., author of Long Time Leaving
“One Place is a deep reflection on one artist’s tilling of the soil at the heart of home, but mostly, these words and images are about time, what lasts, what doesn't. Here, we find Kwilecki’s fellow sojourners in time, and Decatur County—black and white, young and old, workers and storeowners and shoppers, preachers and prisoners. People inhabiting the place they share; the place they began, the place they will end.”
Natasha Trethewey, U.S. Poet Laureate and author of Thrall 
“When asked why southern writers are so good, Flannery O’Connor said that ‘the Southerner knows he can do more justice to reality by telling a story than he can by discussing problems or proposing abstractions.’ I think something similar is true of southern visual artists. Unfortunately, the machinations of the art world have prevented many of these visual storytellers from receiving the same attention as their literary counterparts. I know of no other southern artist more worthy of broad exposure than Paul Kwilecki. As full of riches as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Kwilecki’s sustained portrayal of Decatur County is an American classic.”
Alec Soth, photographer and author of From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America
“‘Nourished and wounded’ by Decatur County, Paul Kwilecki’s photographs and writings, and Tom Rankin’s introduction, offer evidence of a masterful visual drama of life in the South. Rankin underscores how memory is central to Kwilecki’s narrative—I love the carefully constructed web he weaves in talking about Kwilecki’s pictures within pictures. I am amazed and amused at Kwilecki’s ability to negotiate the gazes of a “preacher” and a “prostitute” with such precision. Gesture is critical to Kwilecki's eye, revealing his love for humanity. A white dress hanging in the rain on a clothesline and a woman hidden in a darkened doorway are framed to imagine narratives about desire. A remarkable variety of images are included in this poetic book, from a lonely misty cemetery at dawn to a crowded county fair at midday. ” 
Deborah Willis, author of Posing Beauty and Reflections in Black
“Seen through Paul Kwilecki’s eyes, a small county tucked away in the corner of southwest Georgia has been recorded for the ages. Once you’ve seen these photographs, you can’t forget the places or the people. Until now, Kwilecki’s intensely personal and highly developed skill of recognition has gone unnoticed. That changes forever with the publication of this volume.”
Julian Cox, founding curator of photography and chief curator, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
“There is something downright supernatural about Kwilecki's accomplishment. Maybe it is that he spent over forty years as a witness; maybe it is that he set out to do more than create images and compositions; maybe it is that he has captured in a shamanistic fashion the soul of a place. He has achieved a degree of intimacy that cannot be faked, and cannot be explained merely by deep-time and personal connection. One Place is by no stretch of the imagination a short history of a small place: it is a monumental chronicle of the real, messy, complicated, redeemed and redeeming American spirit.”
Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
Paul Kwilecki’s photography pursues the singular—life as it was lived in one rural county, in one Southern state, during a particular time—and yet manages to transcend the boundaries of that place and his time. One Place is a masterpiece of documentary art.
Roger Hodge, editor-in-chief, Oxford American magazine
“These pictures reflect their maker, a man who was fascinated by the subjects he chose, especially the more vulnerable ones, and who was an outsider himself, at least by temperament. The warmth and respectfulness of the photographs seems almost absent from our present world: they show lives lived simply with a kind of modesty that is enviable. I am grateful for Paul Kwilecki's persistence, and for the photographs he left behind.”
Sandra S. Phillips, curator of photography, SFMOMA
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“Paul Kwilecki’s day job was running a hardware store, but his passion was documenting his hometown, Decatur County, Ga. In the 1960s, the self-taught photographer wrote to such luminaries as Ansel Adams and David Vestal, hoping to get an honest assessment of his work.
Adams suggested he go for deeper tones of black. Vestal suggested he go deeper into his passion. “I know that to do the kind of work I want to do,” Vestal wrote, “photography can’t be a pastime or hobby. . . .”
Mr. Kwilecki took that advice, selling his store in 1975 and devoting himself to detailing life in his hometown until he died in 2009 at the age of 81. He was fascinated by all aspects of Decatur County, especially its black agricultural farmers and working-class residents.
‘I am taking my 35mm camera into places around here no cameras have ever gone,” he wrote in one letter to Ansel Adams. “Into shanties, into tawdry, small-town cafes (not the Robert Frank kind, the south-Georgia, bible-belt kind), into kitchens and hallways of farm houses, and there, in the middle of things these people live with, I make their pictures.’”
Featured in the January/February issue of Southwest Georgia Living 
“One of the best and most important books to come from the South, ever (for me)—and now on my shelf beside Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor—is a book of photographs taken in a single southern county over a forty-year span by a man whose name most of us don’t know. . . . One Place may break your heart—but your heart will quickly mend, and you will most likely come away from this book with a lasting tendency to look more closely at people, less closely at things.”
—Clyde Edgerton, Garden & Gun
“This remarkable, superbly edited book tells the arresting story of a heretofore little-known documentarian and ethnographer while highlighting his powerful and beautiful black-and-white photographs. . . . Abundant, memorable images by what can justifiably be called an undiscovered master—comparisons with Dorothea Lange and William Eggleston are apt—interspersed with his own elegant writing, this is an irresistible book. Kwilecki was a picture maker who compelled his viewers to know whom he knew, and succeeded at it.”
Library Journal starred review
“This impressive career-spanning collection of over 200 black-and-white photos (published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University) represents Kwilecki’s four-decade attempt (until his death in 2009) to portray the nuances of his hometown of Bainbridge, Ga., where he ran the family hardware store. Kwilecki (Understandings: Photographs of Decatur County, Georgia) succeeded in his efforts to create a magnificent microcosm. Whatever his focus is at a given moment—portraits of manual laborers, documenting the joy of a courthouse wedding, or ruminating on cemeteries—he clearly wished to account for all of life’s flavors. The book also includes generous excerpts from Kwilecki’s thoughtful writing about his own process and the people he encountered. . . . He gives dignity and grace to the predominantly working-class community.”
"Photographers' portraits of places are usually taken while passing through. . . . Instead, Paul Kwilecki simply stayed in his hometown of Bainbridge, Ga., taking pictures while he grew up and ran the family hardware store. One Place: Paul Kwilecki and Four Decades of Photographs from Decatur County, Georgia, . . . collects this self-taught photographer's striking black-and-white scenes of labor and leisure in his community. The four-decade span offers a rare level of insight into how Kwilecki's town both changed and stayed the same during his life there."
—Chris Vitiello, Indy Week
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