Guide to the Paul Kwilecki photographs and papers, 1960-2008 and undated
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Collection comprises 588 black-and-white photographic prints, along with negatives, contact sheets, photographer's notes, journals, writings, speeches, correspondence related to photography, and printed material, totaling over 9000 items. Kwilecki's photographic work documents rural and small-town life in and around Bainbridge, Decatur County, Georgia, an undertaking he began as a self-taught photographer in 1960 and continued until his death in 2009. Subjects include local landscapes, tobacco workers, county fairs, hog killings, cemeteries, churches, courthouses, recreation on the Flint River, local industry, supermarkets, downtowns, and house porches and interiors. The themes of race relations and religious life predominate. Many of Kwilecki's subjects come from the African American community in Decatur County. Significant correspondents in the manuscripts series include photographers Alex Harris and David Vestal. Acquired as part of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
- Collection Number
- Paul Kwilecki photographs and papers
- 1960-2008 and undated
- 41.5 Linear Feet, 53 boxes; 1 oversize folder; 2 oversize boxes, Approximately 9480 Items
- David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
The Paul Kwilecki Photographs and Papers span the years 1960-2008 and include 588 black-and-white photographic prints, negatives, contact sheets, photographer's notes, journals, writings, speeches, correspondence related to photography, and other printed material. The bulk of the collection consists of Paul Kwilecki's black and white prints and other photographic material documenting rural and small-town life in and around Bainbridge, Decatur County, Georgia, an undertaking he began as a self-taught photographer in 1960 and continued until his death in 2009. Although Kwilecki developed an interest in photography in the 1940s, only a very small portion of the images in the collection pre-date 1970.
The collection is organized into two major series: Photographic Materials, containing prints, contact sheets, and negatives, and a Manuscripts Series housing many files of correspondence, writings, and other personal papers.
While initially interested in photographing tobacco workers, Kwilecki turned his focus to other subjects, including county fairs, hog kilings, cemeteries, churches, courtrooms, recreation on the Flint River, local industry, bus stations, supermarkets, downtowns, house porches and interiors, and landscapes. Many of Kwilecki's subjects come from the African American community in Decatur County. Throughout the collection, the themes of race relations and religious life tend to predominate.
The Manuscripts Series (1967-2008) also provides an interpretation of life in Decatur County but also documents Kwilecki's photographic philosophy and practices. The correspondence and the journals, related to Kwilecki's work and career as a photographer, comprise the largest groupings. The series also contains Kwilecki's personal journals, dating from 1967-1969; Kwilecki's printing notes; news clippings; exhibition brochures; and a brief internet biography of Kwilecki. Many of Kwilecki's writings attempt to express in words the same topics he tried to illuminate through photography.
Additional manuscripts (14 boxes) and photographic materials were received in 2010 following Kwilecki's passing away. They include many folders of correspondence dating from 1971-2008, arranged in original order either chronologically or alphabetically by folder title. Significant correspondents include photographers Alex Harris and David Vestal. Other files contain writings, clippings, and other items. The writings include journalistic entries from the 1970s; typed excerpts from early 20th century Georgia newspapers, some on racial incidents; drafts of Kwilecki's talks; and notes for the Decatur County photography publication (one folder). A few publications round out the last box in the collection.
The negatives and contact sheets in this addition, numbering in the thousands, may need additional processing and preservation before access can be granted.
During processing and arrangement, the original order of all of these materials has been retained.
Acquired as part of the Archives of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
Access to the Collection
Collection is open for access. The negatives and contact sheets may need further processing before access can be granted.
Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.
All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48 hours to retrieve these materials for research use.
Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.
Use & Permissions
Materials in this collection are made available for research, scholarship, and private study. Copyright in these materials has not been transferred to Duke University. For reuses of these materials beyond those permitted by fair use or otherwise allowed under the Copyright Act, please consult https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/research/citations-and-permissions
How to Cite
[Identification of item], Paul Kwilecki Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
This series includes 583 black and white prints (543 11x14 prints and 40 oversized prints), as well as hundreds each of contact sheets, contact prints, and negatives. Kwilecki identified prints by a unique number indicating the roll number, the month and year, and the frame number. However, there are quite a few without print numbers; these are designated as "Print unnumbered." He also normally supplied a title and a date, although some have no title. All photographs were taken by Kwilecki in order to document the life and culture of Decatur County, Georgia and the individuals who live there. Boxes PHO 1-10 contain prints arranged topically under the following main headings arranged and designated by Kwilecki: Decatur County Court House; Cemeteries; County Fairs; Battle's Quarters; Bainbridge, Ga.; Agriculture; Flint River, Ga.; Industry; Houses; Landscapes; Laura Pope; Pear Orchard; Portraits; Religion; Shoppers; Shade Tobacco; Social Events; Stores; Swine Time; Trailways Bus Station; Workers; and Willis Park. The largest grouping is Religion (8 folders). The Portraits Series includes a self-portrait of Kwilecki.
Within these topical groupings, prints are sometimes arranged chronologically (though never consistently so) or grouped together under “sub-topics.” The descriptive captions to the prints in Boxes PHO 1-10 (in quotes) are supplied by Kwilecki, often in the first person. So too, the title Understandings has been included with various prints to indicate that they appear in Kwilecki's book of that name, published in 1981. Oversized Box 1 contains oversized prints whose arrangement corresponds to the main series headings listed above. As in boxes PHO 1-10, certain prints also include Kwilecki's photographic captions and/or the title Understandings. Titles or dates in brackets have been supplied by the processing archivist.
Original negatives (closed to use) and contact sheets were received upon Kwilecki's passing in 2009, and are in original order as received.
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
“With its white walls to diffuse incoming light and overhead flourescents, the light is unbelievably soft, as I've tried to indicate.”
“On the wall a picture of Judge Crow (deceased). Standing, Judge Robert Culpeper. Seated, Judge Wallace Cato.”
“A typical scene outside court house.”
“The tattoo had beads sewn beneath the skin and was in colors.”
“Waiting in vestibule.”
“It is the oldest cemetery in Decatur County. Joel Darcy was one of the original settlers here in 1823.”
“Prisoners who have committed non-violent crimes are used to clean up cemeteries, repair roads, cut grass along highways, etc.”
“This was a session of 'State Court,' not Superior Court. Judge Robert Galpin is on the bench.”
“Looking from court room into jury room. Witness stand is at left.”
Print 1: 51-481-9
“Couple getting married by the Ordinary (judge of the Probate Court). The witnesses in the background are her mother and father and this couple's child.”
Print 2: 51-481-10
Print 3: 51-481-11
“The black and white of the toilets have nothing to do with segregation. This was the only restroom in the jury room and was used by men and women, white and black alike. The court house has been remodeled and the jury room no longer looks like this.”
“The pictures behind them are former judges, sheriffs, ordinaries, etc.”
“The scales shown on his desk are not those of justice but the original assayer's scales given to the county in 1823 when it was established, against which all other scales were set and maintained.”
“Aside from the visual interest of the pole and its accouterments it will be a reminder of the clutter of our views long after wires have been put under ground.”
“Exterior showing the West Street entrance, originally the main entrance. The institutional façade towers over the young mother and her child, suggesting the power of government.”
“The segregation, which is obvious, was entirely voluntary. The balcony, originally for 'colored' people, had long since vanished.”
“In the county jail adjacent to the court house.”
“This is a prison wagon used from about 1912-1926. Prisoners working in distant parts of the county slept in this wagon. Imagine eighteen men, exhausted and sweaty, trying to sleep in a low-lying swamp infested with mosquitoes.”
“Behind him, inside the shed, cane juice is being boiled to make syrup. Inmates at the farm grow all the food and livestock that is consumed.”
“This statue on the grave of a Mrs. Cloud was carved from a photo of her standing in the receiving line of her 25th anniversary party.”
“Family plot in Oak City Cemetery. Ornate gate, ancient spreading oak in background.”
“Typical country church and cemetery.”
“What are the fruit jars for? Flowers? If so, why some lids?”
“Another in the series I made of this statue. From a 5x7 negative contact printed.”
From 8x10 negative (lost); only extant print.
“Statue in late afternoon.”
“One of many photos Iâ€™ve made of this same statue through the years. See my notes for fuller explanation.”
“Another in the pictures of this figure, this one with snow on it!”
“View towards the Jewish part of the cemetery.”
“These are memorials to two of Judge Bower's three wives. They command the highest ground in the cemetery.”
“Now abandoned, the church is used to store hay.”
“In many cemeteries vault lids are used as gravestones. This one has fallen in.”
“Grave in Negro Cemetery, Bainbridge.”
“Dr. J. H. Griffin who built this cemetery was from Bainbridge.”
“Wanlisa Spear is the girl being baptized on page 113 of Understandings. She had become a drug addict and was raped and murdered on a dark street near her home. Rev. Mitchell performed her funeral as well as her baptism.”
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
“This is the one dirt street comprising the quarters. Children play in it. Originally built to house workers at Battle's Lumber Co., it outlived its original purpose by forty years. It was a terrible slum. It has been torn down.”
“The houses were impossible to heat in winter, cool in summer, or otherwise made comfortable. Consequently, most life was lived on the porches and in the yards. The man at right is the Quarterâ€™s stud, and this is one of his girl friends.”
“Behind the house doing the washing.”
“A child of the quarters sitting on an abandoned car parked between two of the houses.”
“Woman doing the washing on a cold winter day.”
“All these people lived in this one house. There was no indoor plumbing.”
“In summer life was mostly lived outdoors.”
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
“Scene on Water Street.”
“View down Water Street on a Sunday morning.”
“City workers repairing street.”
“The image speaks for itself.”
“Just before it was replaced.”
“View of the top of the court house tower, seen from behind the Bon Air Hotel.”
“Once a typical house in a ghetto section of West Bainbridge, but now torn down. I don't know why I included it in Understandings.”
“Reflected in the window is the Court House. This photo could also be used in the Court House series.”
“His name was Steve Dickinson, I think.”
“Formerly First State National Bank, it was purchased by the city for City Hall in the early 1970s.”
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
“Two people fishing: big can/little can.”
“Swimming at a 'beach' the city created at one end of the boat basin, Flint River.”
“Dismantling of old Memorial Bridge after new bridge was completed. I have a whole set of pictures documenting its taking down.”
“Scene in early morning fog on the river bank.”
“If this is the typical American family, God help us!”
Print LB 777-54
“Tower and warehouse. Vigaro plant. Bainbridge.”
“Time required: 12 minutes. Time formerly required: 6 hours. Lynch Machine Co. Bainbridge.”
“Mysterious landscape? No. Discharge of cotton dust that has flocked the landscape. The planet-like object is a mote of cotton dust that got on my lens.”
“He is wearing goggles and mask because of the grain dust in the air.”
“Dust and trash are being sucked off at lower right. Dollar Farm Products Co. Bainbridge.”
“Is this a building or an outdoor machine? A sculpture?”
“This is new: seeing workers sitting staring at machines. Lynch Machine Co.”
“Behind him can be seen the largest machine yet built. Lynch Machine Co.”
“This is what a peanut operation looks like from across the road.”
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
“Some are left to collapse; this one burned about a year after this picture was made.”
“As the small farmer leaves the farm, his houses are left behind.”
“Dating from the last century.”
“The house is now torn down.”
“It was on the corner of Broughton and Clay Streets. My grandfather stayed there for a short time when he came to Bainbridge in 1869. It was torn down shortly after this picture was made.”
“This is a familiar sight in Decatur County where livestock is a major crop.”
“These statues were constructed during and shortly after World War I by a genuine eccentric in Grady County named Laura Pope. At one time there were over a hundred such life-size statues standing in the yard. All were of soldiers or nurses or spirits. She made life-masks for the faces and concrete for the bodies, which were stylized and awkwardly rendered.”
“When she died the farm was sold to Buster Nixon who tried to conserve the statues, but rain and freezing temperatures cracked much of the concrete.”
“This was one of the first pictures I made that satisfied me.”
“Children were playing basketball and asked to have their picture made.”
[See also Oversize Box 1.]
“This was one of the first portraits I attempted. It was made inside a very old house out in the county (near Cyrene). This woman is the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the men shown in the photograph above her head.”
“See my notes about Marie and this and another photo.”
“See my notes for details about Rheda and the making of this picture.”
[See also Oversize Box 2.]
“This is typical of the change from old to new church buildings by small congregations out in the sparsely populated county. Unfortunately in most cases the new structures don't measure up to the old. Instead of wood they use concrete block. Instead of blending into the landscape, they are a caustic white and stand out.”
“Note the dog asleep at left next to the church.”
“This church raises barrenness and impersonality to an art, even to symmetry. The screen doors divide the façade in half: one air conditioner per side; one untrimmed boxwood per side. The name squarely in the center.”
“It sits like a fortress flanked by a parking lot filled with the latest model cars. This picture tells more than many Baptists would want to hear.”
“Older churches frequently had two doors, one for each aisle. This church, which meets only one Sunday a month, is set back behind tall pines, obscured from the road. The idea of the sign is a conceit. Who will see it?”
“The church steeple will soon be extinct on small churches such as this. In fact since this picture was made this minor gesture to steeples has been removed and nothing put in its place.”
“Note the steeple, the merest nod to convention, a wooden box set over an open space (with nothing to support it). Still, the sunlight is beautiful on it.”
“They had just finished building their new church with their own hands and this was the dedication. These are the most truly integrated congregations I've ever seen. Black and white work and worship side by side.”
“Music was furnished by piano, guitar, and drums. The woman in the hat has gotten so carried away she's dancing. Note the similarity of gesture to some very ancient Jewish dances.”
“The woman, right, is the minister. The man praying and holding her hand is a deacon who has just finished serving 15 years for murder. This was an extremely long and emotional service.”
“A three hour service at this church on Sunday morning is not unusual. Music plays a major role. Before it's over, people are dancing in the aisles and experiencing ecstasy.”
“This is part of the same service as shown in the previous picture.”
“The proximity of sex to religion was blatant in this service. The minister is saying that 'it's coming,' meaning the spirit. He says he can't hold it back. Shortly he begins to jerk and shake, replicating orgasm.”
“Formerly, they baptized in the Flint River. Rev. Mitchell seen at left.”
“Rev. Mitchell, left. Lisa Spear, lower right. Ben Edwards, extreme right. See photo of Lisa Spear's grave.”
“See other photographs of exterior and interior before and after abandonment.”
“The old structure has been torn down.”
“This is a set of pictures made at a revival. Supper was served first, then singing and guitar playing. Then preaching. Note the faces.”
Print 1: 29-577-16
Print 2: 29-577-20a
“This is a beautiful old church in a stereotypical southern setting. However, it was moved to its present location about thirty years ago from an area that was being inundated by Jim Woodruf Dam. It is no longer in use.”
“This is an emotional ceremony and the woman dancing is having an ecstatic experience.”
“This is the first image in a group of six that tells the story of Mt. Horum. Once a relatively active congregation, it declined until finally one Sunday the worshipers left and never came back. The altar, pews, even the prayer books remain, but the grounds are grown up in weeds and saplings.”
Print 1: 75-1283
Print 2: 124-1278-12a
Print 3: 124-1278-7a
“In this shot the vine indicates the disuse the church has fallen into. Also note the chain on the door is the same throughout all the picture.”
Print 4: 27-589-20
“This is a recent interior shot showing how the church was left. I did not touch or arrange anything. However, I was extremely cautious getting in through a window. The largest diamondback rattlesnake I ever saw was killed less than a mile from this location.”
Print 5: 10-591-15
“The final shot in the series. Compare this to the first picture. The building is askew, but little else is different.”
Print 6: 5-391-22
“Rev. Mitchell is an attendant; his brother, a minister from Thomasville, officiated.”
“See my notes for a fuller description of this photo.”
“Back row: the minister and assistant minister. The man in front is serving his apprenticeship. They are strong, dedicated individuals.”
“I photographed their wedding (she is Rev. Mitchell's daughter) a couple of years before. The husband works as a mechanic for Kmart but wants to be a preacher like his father-in-law.”
[See also Oversize Box 2.]
“Typical shopper with forlorn, absent-minded look on her face, which you see everywhere when shoppers are preoccupied.”
“People don't realize how they look when they're preoccupied with shopping. I set about to photograph their expressions which are those of a stalker.”
“Note the fan she carries with her.”
“This was one of the earliest pictures I made that pleased me. Even so the exposure leaves something to be desired.”
“Typical tobacco shack in which workers lived. Woman is trying to get warm in the sunshine.”
“A duplex shack in which two families live. Shade tobacco is used as the wrapper for cigars. The leaf has to be absolutely perfect.”
“Workers resting in field. They are in the process of stringing the plants up.”
“Woman hoeing tender new plants. Note the layers of clothes she is wearing.”
“Worker picking leaves. Lowest leaves are picked first. Leaves are stacked on a wagon and hauled to barn to cure.”
“Two women resting outside barn.”
“These are children of the women working just out of camera range, stringing tobacco inside the cool, cathedral-like barns. They play all day on the dirt floor. Their mothers are stringing leaves which will be hung in the barn ceiling to cure.”
“He was a worker and foreman. This picture was taken at his home. He had eleven children and several grandchildren.”
“These children do not pick leaves despite their having boards in their hands. They are playing under the ripe, aromatic plants. Their jobs were to do odds and ends.”
“Tobacco hand's house long after tobacco had ceased to be grown in Decatur County. Such places by 1980 were the worst of slums.”
“A wedding reception for Chris Dollar.”
[See also Oversize Box 2.]
“Young man is making a weekly payment.”
Print 103-1178 10a
“Originally operated by Willie Jim Brockett.”
“View of Broad Street from Willis Park.”
“Tiny store near school in West Bainbridge where children go to buy candy, etc. Also neighborhood grocery. This is the proprietor.”
[See also Oversize Box 2.]
“People listening to and watching the hog calling contest.”
Uncaptioned black-and-white print of middle-aged white man, with one arm, sitting in Trailways bus office behind work counter. Date derived from wall calendar appearing in the image.
[See also Oversize Box 2.]
“This is one of my favorite photographs. See my notes for more information on this man.”
“Log yards broker pulp wood between the grower and the consumer (paper mills).”
“Pile of peanuts is visible behind him.”
“This man drives a tractor during peanut season and a truck the rest of the year.”
“This man has been on top of a rail car loading corn from storage bins.”
“Resting in the field while the big machine turns around at the end of a row.”
“The building is the oldest structure in Bainbridge, so this is a picture of the oldest profession in front of the oldest building. Is she eyeing me as a prospective customer or just sizing me up?”
“The occasion was the dedication of a memorial to Vietnam veterans.”
“Before the park was redone people sat and watched and waited. Now the benches are gone and people only pass through the park.”
A newspaper photographer was taking their picture.
“This set shows a little girl (1) about to wet her pants, (2) wetting them under the watchful eye of the other children, and (3) she continues looking at the fish in the pool as though nothing had happened while the black children look to me for some reaction.”
Print 18 W.P. 3
“Couples unwittingly posed by snapshooting mothers against the memorial to Decatur County men who have died in all wars since the Civil War.”
“They are not applauding but fighting southern Georgia gnats.”
Five black-and-white 11x14 inch prints were added to the collection in 2017. They are untitled and undated, although one has been tentatively dated from a wall calendar. One entry was listed under the Trailways Bus Station series, as it is a portrait of an employee in a Trailways office. The other four listed here are undated and uncaptioned and their intended series is uncertain.
Undated, uncaptioned black-and-white print of main street in commercial district of an unknown town, probably Bainbridge, Georgia. View is of store window with mannequin in wedding dress, in left foreground; music store, various other stores in background.
Undated, uncaptioned black-and-white print of close-up of giant tree, foreground, behind low iron fence, with partial view of white frame house in right background.
Undated, uncaptioned black-and-white print of two African American women and one child fishing on river bank. May have been part of the Flint River series.
Undated, uncaptioned black-and-white print of middle-aged white man with magnification glasses, perhaps a jeweler, seated at a workbench with office clock in background. May have been part of the Portraits series.
Boxes house oversize photographic prints separated for housing from main series. Series structure is duplicated, beginning with Decatur Courthouse and ending with Workers. Also in the oversize section are six prints of Cape Cod shot in the 1960s by David Vestal, a friend and colleague of Paul Kwilecki.
“Chain gang guard watches prisoners building dam to keep water from overflowing highway. Typical swamp.”
“This carcass has just been pulled out of the vat of hot water. The convicts have scraped the hide bare. Next step is to quarter.”
“These men are rotating a hog carcass in hot water, preparatory to scraping the hair off the hide.”
“This prisoner from the County Farm restored and refinished this light fixture which originally hung in the court room. Initially it was a gas fixture, later converted to electricity. The brass had been painted over several times and the whole thing was about to be thrown out.”
“Early morning and very cold.”
“These hogs are about to be dipped in the vat of hot water.”
“This ritual goes on throughout the county at this time of year.”
“It was a bitterly cold, windy day. This man is removing the brain and tongue from the head of the hog.”
This text gives a brief description of Greenshade Cemetery and describes a work day and picnic that took place at the cemetery Apr. 30, 1977.
“I have observed elsewhere that life in the quarters was lived mostly out of doors. To demonstrate how true that is, this man was making love to a woman just inside the open door when he saw me about to photograph his child on the porch. He is in the process of dressing himself as he looks dauntingly at me.”
“Saturday afternoon and everyone sits around in the shade and talks. These three were totally unconcerned with my photography. I had to interrupt them to ask them to look my way.”
“Interior of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beecher Thomas on Shotwell and Scott Streets.”
“This boy rented a room from Gus. This photograph was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art many years ago.”
“Dr. M. A. Ehrlich in his operating room on his 75th birthday. He and his brother had this small downtown clinic years ago. As I took his picture he reminisced about times gone by. See my notes for more on this.”
“This was an early effort, not fully successful but not altogether a failure either.”
“This preacher is standing in the anteroom of his small church. Once I didn't like this picture. Now I do.”