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 Thomas S. (Tom) Rankin  (20/21st century)

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Lived/Active: North Carolina      Known for: Documentary photography, teaching

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is excerpted from the Clarion Content Weekly Newsletter, July 10, 2013 ·

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 cross hairs 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.”
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.

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.

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.

Online Source:

Biography from The Ogden Collection, Museum of Southern Art:
Tom Rankin is Director of the Center for Documentary Studies and Associate Professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies at Duke University. Formerly Associate Professor of Art and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and Chair of the Art Department at Delta State University, he is a graduate of Tufts University (BA, summa cum laude, American History), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (MA, Folklore), and Georgia State University (MFA, Photography).

A native of Kentucky, his photography books include Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (1993), which received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Photography; Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre': Photographs of a River Life (1995); Faulkner's World: The Photographs of Martin J. Dain (1997); and Local Heroes Changing America: Indivisible (2000). His photographs have been widely collected and published, and included in numerous exhibitions. He is a frequent writer and lecturer on photography, southern art and culture, and the documentary tradition.

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