Hello, I Must Be Going: Tom Rankin Moves On
By Paul Deblinger
Deblinger has spent a lifetime in the media business, beginning as a kid interning at The Washington Post, then years writing a horse racing column, covering the Minneapolis sports beat as a local AP stringer, and publishing a travel guide, finally a more recent run in Durham culminating in a certificate from the Center for Documentary Studies and a coterie of projects in the works.
It’s not easy to document a documentarian, especially one who has placed himself squarely in the crosshairs of the debate about the nature of documentary arts.
As Tom Rankin packs up his office Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), he doesn’t plan on flinging his camera over his shoulder and trudging off into the Southern wild.
While Rankin’s 15-year tenure at CDS has come to an end, his move down the street as director of Duke’s new MFA program in Experimental and Documentary Arts continues a personal quest to seek out new paths in documentary arts which also include his latest work, editing a new book of the photographs of the late Paul Kwilecki, One Place.
Rankin has been the director of CDS for 15 years. He had pretty much decided that his third five-year term would be his last. In those 15 years CDS greatly expanded its undergraduate courses, added a continuing education program, put a greater emphasis on exhibitions and publishing, and cemented its ownership of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
And then there’s that new MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, a product of Rankin’s creative mind. For the past three years Rankin has directed both CDS and the MFA program, in addition to his classroom duties and his own creative work.
“At times I felt a little bit splintered in a way that wasn’t good for either program,” he said sitting on the porch of the CDS “house” in Durham as a late spring thunderstorm raged overhead.
With the administration of CDS, the MFA program, and Full Frame, it means lots of paper pushing, e-mails, fundraising and meetings. “I want to make sure to get my projects done,” he said. “I can’t close the door on my own work.”
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For Rankin that work started at a very young age. He grew up in Louisville, Ky. and remembers being fascinated with people’s jobs. “I gravitated to older people and their stories even pretending to be sick when a workmen would come and work on the house.”
Rankin recorded interviews with relatives and took pictures. He started taking photographs during his freshman year in college at Tufts and was taught darkroom techniques by friends. His graduate study took him to Chapel Hill for an MA in Folklore and Georgia State for an MFA in Photography.
His burgeoning interest in photography paralleled his academic interests in Southern History, art history and literature at Tufts and planted the seeds of his current thinking about the relationship of theory and practice in documentary which led to the formation of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts.
“It’s the kind of program I would have wanted to be in,” he said. “My interest has always been to blend ethnography and art. Instead of the ethnographer hiring a photographer, he can be the photographer.”
“If I were naming CDS now it would be the Center for Documentary Arts,” he said, referring to the ongoing debate whether documentary work should be a “more objective social science” or as Rankin calls it, “a blend of social science and art.”
“Documentary has always been most powerful when it blends what is really there and an honest personal take on what is really there.” He went on, “I like the word experimental–you never know what you will get–all ethnography and all field work is experimental.” He cites James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as an example of the personal response to documentary work.
He also sees the pitfalls of academics who see this new thinking of documentary arts as “too narcissistic, too biographical.”
Rankin says, “Art is most interesting to me and most powerful when it is engaged in the world. When I say the word museum I think of the street, not a white box with walls.”
He looks at the new MFA program as “a giant placeholder for pushing the boundaries for challenging one’s own way of thinking.”
Rankin clearly sees the danger of an over-academic approach to documentary. “Our biggest success,” he said, “is to realize something that is very idealistic and in a way runs counter to what universities are about. Universities now are about specialization–like Duke. Universities can and should be about specialization–with high-minded research, as long as they are engaged in the rest of the world. It’s a false dichotomy to think that to be serious we only have to talk to each other.We have to be a full member of the academy and also have to be a subversive burr in the side of university life.”
He decries the notion that “the creative practice of art is different and not as important as the study of theory and history.”
“The Center is a very privileged place where we can ignore the war between theory and practice, between the academic and the artist. We need to merge theory and practice as if practice has no theory and theory has no practice.”
“The cult of higher education is sometimes its own worst enemy,” he says with a grin.
Tom Rankin’s latest publication is One Place, the photographs of Paul Kwilecki who died in 2009, which he edited and wrote the preface. If anything typifies the notion of a “non-academic” approach to documentary photography, it is the work of Kwilecki. Born in 1928 in Bainbridge, Georgia, Kwilecki rarely departed Decatur County and spent his life photographing the people and places close to him.
Kwilecki is the ultimate paradoxical photographer: the outsider artist who is the ultimate insider. He knew his territory intimately and the people he photographed knew him, but he was also a stranger in a strange land, a child of Jews who immigrated to the Deep South during the Civil War.
Kwilecki’s grandfather immigrated from Eastern Europe in 1862 and wandered throughout the South as an itinerant merchant before settling in Bainbridge and establishing a hardware business. He became a prominent member of his community and passed that social status to his son, Paul’s father.
Bainbridge is a blip on the map of southwest Georgia, a rural agrarian community where shade tobacco was once its chief agricultural product. Needless-to-say, Jews made up a very small percentage of the population of Bainbridge and the rural South in general, although Decatur County has a long established, but small Jewish community–one that never had a Rabbi but was visited by Rabbis from larger communities. There is a Jewish section of the Bainbridge cemetery where Kwilecki’s grandparents, parents and a cousin who survived the Nazi concentration camps are buried.
If there is one place in Bainbridge that unites the community, it is the cemetery and Kwilecki felt that deeply, photographing it throughout his life.
He was not a practicing Jew but had a strong identity with faith and carried on his family tradition of giving to the Jewish community. He also produced many photographs depicting the African-American places of worhip in the county.
Kwilecki’s destiny was the hardware store his grandfather established. While Kwilecki went to Emory University for his graduate and undergraduate degrees he returned home, however restless, to Bainbridge and never left.
“His daughter Susan says he could not have left, he was incapable of leaving,” said Rankin.”Instead of being frustrated and miserable he found a way to become a serious artist.”
“He didn’t stay put as an artistic dictum, he didn’t really have a choice, but he took that non-choice and really made something of it.”
Rankin said his daughter Susan thinks Kwilecki was a type of agoraphobic who just didn’t feel comfortable outside his familiar surroundings. The idea of packing a suitcase for a trip was frightening to him.
He did venture out a few times when he became noticed as an important photographer. Alex Harris invited him to speak to a class at Duke which eventually led the Rubenstein Library at Duke to become the repository of Kwilecki’s archive of photographs and letters.
Kwilecki was certainly a man of contradictions–he was very pleased with his relationship with Duke, and he maintained correspondence with prominent photographers and museum curators. Magazines kept him in touch with the artistic and technical sides of photography, but he never shared details of his artistic life with his family.
While they knew of his growing passion, they didn’t even know he corresponded with Ansel Adams, Beaumont Newhall, Peter Vestal, and many other luminaries.
“There’s a whole world his family doesn’t share in,” said Rankin. “Which lead to another kind of isolation.”
“The idea that he was the ultimate insider, the insider who knows all, is totally exploded,” said Rankin. “He goes a quarter of a mile away and it’s just as new and exotic and transformative to him as if he had gone halfway around the world.”
Over the years he had many different photographic projects, some of which lasted decades and some just a short time. His photographs of the shade tobacco workers portray people who are far different but with whom Kwilecki shared, at least, a common geography and, perhaps, alienation. These were people who knew his family, who patronized his store. There is an intimacy, but a distance to his photographs which make them extremely compelling.
His subjects of place, such as the Bainbridge bus station and the court house exhibit an intimate familiarity. His photographs illustrate the sometimes ethereal light of the hot, humid south.
Kwilecki’s photographs narrate the life of a community, but at the same time, as Ranking suggests, provide an almost taxonomic catalog of his life.
Like many artists, Kwilecki wasn’t the easiest to work with and often put people off. He was very demanding knowing what was right, but, at the same time, wanting to constantly rewrite passages in his books and even re-crop and reprint photographs.
He resisted Rankin’s chronological approach to One Place and wanted to write a lengthy introduction to the book. “He was over thinking, so much,” said Rankin. “I told him this is a photography book and he even suggested publishing a separate essay, a chapbook for the people of Bainbridge.”
As with many artists, getting into the head of Paul Kwilecki is problematical at best. His writing shows a clear need to explain his place in the world. He wanted to be a writer, loved reading and writing, but his lack of confidence in general made him turn to photography.
“There is no question he identified with people on the edge–the unseen, the ignored. There is no question it comes from his Jewishness–feeling that way himself. He didn’t fit in with the business world of his grandfather and father–he didn’t want to be them. He always felt his father didn’t understand him. He was doing this brilliant work, but no one in his family could see the brilliance,” said Rankin.
“That’s the most profound notion of the outsider–how hard life could be for certain people and what gave him the drive to do what he did because of the success of his grandfather and father.”
There are some profound clues to Kwilecki’s world. When his alma mater Emory University awarded an honorary degree to the rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, Kwilecki objected vehemently writing to the president of Emory, letting them know it was morally wrong to give an honorary degree to a Nazi. He cut off all ties to Emory, turning down several requests from them and renewing his objection to succeeding Emory officials.
The publication of One Place and the exhibition of Kwilecki’s photographs (on display at CDS through July 27, 2013) is a sterling achievement for CDS and Rankin. Kwilecki’s photographs are engaging from a social and technical perspective but when his life story is added to the photographs a unique Southern story is revealed.
In the canon of American photography, Kwilecki occupies a small niche, but one that should be noted. It’s a remarkable paradox how confined but universal his photographs are. His writing adds dimension to the world and makes Kwilecki one of the more interesting photograohers of the South, if not the country .
When Moses wandered through the Sinai he knew he was a stranger in a strange land, knew he could not enter the Promised Land, the world he so much desired. Exodus documents Moses’ quest in the same way Kwilecki’s photographs clearly document his paradoxical life, a lifelong resident of a small place who feels like the ultimate outsider whom no one really understands, a person who yearned for a place in the world of museums and universities, but who felt it was place he could never enter.
Kwilecki had a much beloved dog named Reb, the common name of a Rabbi in Yiddish culture. Rankin wondered whether Kwilecki chose the name because it has one meaning to him and another, vastly different meaning for the residents of Bainbridge: Reb as in Rebel.
When Rankin discussed Kwilecki’s life and work at his talk during the opening reception for the exhibit at CDS, it was evident that Rankin identifies not only with the Southern aesthetic of Kwilecki’s work, but also the complexity of his personality.
Rankin has big plans to more fully engage his own art now that he has shed the mantle of administrator for CDS. He plans to return to the darkroom to resume printing the photographs he neglected for so many years, he also has several projects in mind including returning to his native Kentucky to photograph racetracks and Thoroughbred farms he knew well in his younger years.
Rankin has clearly left his mark on CDS and Duke and his leadership of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts will continue that effort. Rankin closes the door on one major achievement, but so many other doors await.
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