At 84, Bruce Roberts remembers the Outer Banks before they became one of North Carolinas top tourist attractions, a must-visit destination for everything from surfing to fishing to family vacations and the inspiration for those ubiquitous OBX stickers.
On his first visit, a half-century ago, I drove from the bridge to the Hatteras Lighthouse, and I dont think I passed more than one car on the entire length, the retired photographer recalls.
In fact, theres a picture from that very trip: Oregon Inlet looks deceptively calm on either side of then-new Bonner Bridge, while the Coast Guard lifesaving station testament to the seas lethal potential is visible in the distance.
The black and white shot is the second picture in Just Yesterday on the Outer Banks, a new edition of a book of photography Roberts first published in 1964, with text by the late historian David Stick, also known for The Graveyard of the Atlantic. The original book was pure grayscale color prints were prohibitively expensive in the 1960s. Even so, when Roberts was doing the original photography, he also shot about 80 percent of the pictures in color, he says. In the new edition, he can finally share those images.
Roberts mission as a retiree is to get some of his old books back in print to try and save what I did in my earlier years, he says. Another book, Just Yesterday in North Carolina, is also in the works.
During his award-winning career, he worked for Southern Living as director of photography and The Charlotte Observer as a photojournalist; hes also shot for Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. Roberts work in Just Yesterday on the Outer Banks reflects a time when Hatteras and its neighbors were still backwaters, and new developments in photojournalism enabled him to capture that world before it vanished.
It was unique, he says. It was kind of a lonely feeling, and I think Ive always kept that feeling. It was like being in a different place.
In those days, ships weathered remains were still in evidence on the beaches, and one could find treasures in the sand from quarters dating to World War II, when German U-boats prowled just offshore, or gold coins from much earlier shipwrecks. The people Roberts found relied on the sea for their livelihood even joking it had given them a schoolteacher when one was delivered via shipwreck.
The natives were there, and they were a hardy bunch of people, he recalls. I really had a lot of respect for people who could survive, and obviously they had.
Realism ahead of his time
He includes photos of commercial fishermen in the book: One sets a net while another stands in his boat, tiller in hand, and surveys the sea. And one boat-builder leans on an unfinished small craft, his weathered skin and squinting eyes evincing a life of hard work and salty air.
Today the candid realism reflected in his photos is common throughout photojournalism, but Roberts work was cutting-edge in the 1960s. At The Charlotte Observer, he worked in one of few newsrooms of the day using Nikon 35 mm cameras. Unlike with the slow, bulky equipment that had been the industry standard, a 35 mm camera allowed a photographer to work quickly and inconspicuously.
I think that, in some ways, was as important a change as digital photography, Roberts says.
During the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, Roberts was able photograph a Charlotte lunch counter sit-in without attracting the attention of restaurant management and getting kicked out.
If youre there with a big camera and a flash, you alert everybody that their pictures being taken, he explains. But with a 35 mm it wasnt as obvious.
This spurred a shift from mere picture-taking to documentary photojournalism, Roberts says, and from newspapers publishing posed handshake photos known in the industry as grip-and-grins to more realistic shots. When Roberts traveled to the coast to work on the original book, titled The Cape Hatteras Seashore, he took that experience with him. The book reflects Tar Heels at work and at play, and the natural beauty of the fragile, narrow string of barrier islands.
For about six months, Roberts would travel to the Outer Banks about 350 miles from Charlotte over three-day weekends to explore and shoot. Then, original publisher Bill Lofton put Roberts and Stick in touch. Stick, fresh from writing histories, happily switched gears, creating a striking sense of sand and sea through eloquent essays:
Only the strong of heart climb the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, Stick writes, and only the least inquisitive fail to count the steps of the spiraling stairway to make certain there really are 268 of them, as the architects claimed.
Many are the bold explorers who, having a dizzying fear of the climb, emerge with exuberant pride through the doorway above Step 268, only to quail at the prospect of stepping out on the open platform surrounding the lantern 175 feet above the level of the sea below.
Yet for those who take this final step, there unfolds a vista long remembered ...
Relics of shipwrecks gone
To help bring those memorable vistas back to life for the second edition, Roberts turned to John Havel, a friend and graphic artist who converted his color slides into new prints that wiped away nearly half a century of dusty to make them new again. Archivist Stuart Parks retrieved Roberts old negatives from storage in the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo and digitally reformatted them for the project.
The book complete, the North Carolina coast continues to exert a strong pull on Roberts.
When he left Southern Living in 1993, he retired to Nags Head, where he was a founding member of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society. Today, he lives in Morehead City. Hes on the mainland, he admits, though the ocean is just a mile away.
And the Outer Banks he documented 50 years ago has changed: While Just Yesterday on the Outer Banks features a photo of a kid with a fishing rod climbing on the wreck of the schooner Laura A. Barnes, the same scene today may feature a young fisherman, but the beached ship is long gone.
I think a lot of people, when they think about the Outer Banks, think about shipwrecks and so forth now almost all the visible ones are gone, Roberts says. Its a little bit late now to really get the feeling that you could get back then.