The little boy had fallen and was upset.
A young woman, an anti-poverty worker in a summer program near Rockingham, brought him inside an old schoolhouse to comfort him. Sitting at a battered desk, she put him across her legs so they faced each other, allowing them to peer into each other’s eyes.
Just 10 feet away, photographer Bruce Roberts saw the scene bathed in the soft light coming through the windows. He released the shutter of his Nikon, capturing a beautiful moment that seemed filled with larger implications.
The youngster was black, the young woman white and the time was the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement roiled the South. Beyond a personal encounter, the picture seemed to capture how two cultures that had grown side by side, yet apart, could look deeply at each other and see their shared humanity.
The photograph figures prominently in “Just Yesterday in North Carolina,” a book of Roberts’ photographs recently published by Florida’s Pineapple Press.
Divided into four parts – the Outer Banks, East, Piedmont and Mountains – the pictures with text by David Stick tell of the life and customs of the people of North Carolina: cotton fields and tobacco warehouses, Klansmen with a burning cross, integration at Charlotte lunch counters and schools and personalities such as Doc Watson, Billy Graham and Sen. Sam Ervin.
An award-winning former photographer for The Charlotte Observer, he also freelanced for magazines such as Life and Look and worked for Southern Living magazine.
Roberts took pictures on his days off and peddled them to the big magazines. Some of his pictures have had wide circulation. The shot of the boy and the young woman first appeared in Look, Reader’s Digest and then in a venue Roberts never expected – the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Capturing an instant
Roberts, now 84 and retired in Morehead City, could put a lot of time into getting a good photograph – or not.
The picture of the young woman and boy came from weeks spent shooting anti-poverty workers. Likewise for a photo essay on a mountain doctor who worked the terrain west of Asheville.
But a picture also could happen in an instant.
Driving down U.S. 74 near Maxton, he saw women in colorful bonnets chopping weeds in a cotton field and he pulled over. In a mountain hollow a man emerged out of the fog leading a team of horses. Roberts got a memorable portrait before the man and horses disappeared back into the fog.
Wherever he worked, Roberts remained inconspicuous.
“I tried to be in the background,” he said. “You have to let it happen.”
The range of his subjects shows Roberts was right in the hunch that brought him to North Carolina – that he would find some good pictures.
He grew up outside New York City, went to New York University and did a stint in the Air Force before finding work as a photographer. In 1955, he saw an ad for a job at the News Messenger in Hamlet.
“I thought maybe it would be nice to be in a small place,” he said.
At the juncture of two rail lines, Hamlet was an important train stop, with a wooden station with a wraparound, wide-skirted awning. A photo of it is in the front of the book. Roberts remembers passengers traveling between New York and Florida getting off to buy cheap cigarettes – and how the trains’ vibrations forced him to stop work in the darkroom.
Roberts joined The Charlotte Observer in 1958. The next year, he was named Southern Photographer of the Year.
Roberts’ career spans major changes in photography. He began working with a Speed Graphic camera, bulky and heavy, and able to take only two pictures at a time. He transitioned into the lighter and quicker 35mm camera. “It opened up a whole new beautiful world,” he said.
Self-taught, his first job involved shooting businessmen at the ritzy Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. They’d line up for what are sometimes called “grip and grin” pictures.
A major theme in the book is transition, as North Carolina goes through changes in the 1950s and ’60s. A photo shows the cow pasture that would become Charlotte’s SouthPark mall with uptown buildings in the background. A line of people in the mountains walk to the cemetery for the old custom of Decoration Day.
But more than anything, the book is about people, faces that seem to have their own stories to tell, found as Roberts traveled the state.
On the back cover is a photo of a young Lumbee Indian girl standing in the doorway of a cabin. Roberts discovered novelist Reynolds Price had pinned the picture cut from the newspaper over his typewriter when he was writing “A Long and Happy Life.” His breakthrough 1962 novel’s main character is a feisty young woman named Rosacoke Mustian.
The girl in the photo looks natural and fresh-faced. The publisher later put it on the cover of the paperback edition.
Roberts spotted her while driving near Hamlet, his eyes open and searching.
“You have to roam around,” he said.
It could be his credo.