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. The photographs were taken from 1960 to 2000 in Decatur County, Georgia, by Paul Kwilecki, who died in 2009 at the age of eighty-one. Decatur County is where Kwilecki spent his life. As a young man, he worked in—and then ran—his father’s hardware store but left that job in loyalty to his obsession with photographing his community around and in the town of Bainbridge.
In Kwilecki’s words, “I selected my first subjects from landmarks and occupations that came to mind instinctively when I thought of Decatur County: courthouse, the Flint River, the bus station, the cemetery, churches, farms, the timber industry.” He discovered over time that he was getting “a collective sentiment, something stronger and more pointed than the individual images.” A photo of a man and his suitcase in the bus station, photographs of baptisms, one of a woman and her very big hair, many of the faces of laborers, are now with me. I feel formally introduced to many of them.
One Place: Paul Kwilecki and Four Decades of Photographs from Decatur County, Georgia (UNC Press) may speak to you as it did to me, especially if you grew up in a Southern town. It is so true to the life of a community, so dedicated, it takes on a universal power. You will know the people.
I wouldn’t have guessed that such a book could so effectively teach the art of photography—composition, movement, lighting—by simply showing pictures. As you soak in the atmosphere of Decatur County and detect relationship nuances, you also begin to sense disappointments, judgments, dreads, and joys. And then you begin to realize that you are bringing some of these sentiments to the photos from your own life.
Beneath the simplicity is complexity. The pictures, along with short essays and snippets of writing by Kwilecki, convince the viewer that one place can both nourish and wound (Kwilecki’s profound words). About that word wound: If you love your childhood community and also recognize that humans, by nature and bent, can cause the less fortunate (and in some cases the more fortunate) to suffer indignity, then you will appreciate the gravity, persuasiveness, and gentleness of this book.
Humor resides with gentleness. Writing about events at the county courthouse, Kwilecki tells us that when
Sam Hawes, a local attorney in the early years of the last century, came to the part in his wedding vows, “With all my worldly goods I thee endow,” his deaf mother leaned over to Sam’s father and said loudly enough for the church to hear, “There goes Sam’s bicycle.”
Several of Kwilecki’s photos taken at the grocery store show what many of us have slowly begun to realize over the last half century. Kwilecki writes it clearly and starkly:
Until 1945, retailers only carried merchandise for which a market existed. Now advertising created markets and made people want things.…Shoppers went from aisle to aisle like robots…
Tom Rankin, the editor of One Place, began putting this book together with Kwilecki’s help, and then continued faithfully organizing photos and writings after Kwilecki died. Rankin notes that “one of the ways [Kwilecki] found to…stay settled was to search for the quiet and contemplative human element in what others seemed to exploit, take for granted, or simply ignore.” Rankin, a documentary photographer himself, writes, “Within the long sweep of his work there are themes and places he returns to regularly, and viewing his imagery through time helps reveal his impulse to circle back…”
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.