Durham News: Opinion

Duke digitizes North Carolina’s small-town past

By Bob Wilson

A recent N&O story about Duke University Libraries’ digitization of 106 short vanity films made by the late H. Lee Waters brought the Lexington photographer’s name to many who likely had never heard of him.

But if you had been in Durham, Chapel Hill, Burlington and some 85 other North Carolina towns and cities in the late 1930s until 1942, you would have known about Waters.

In fact, you might have been a “star” in one of his films of local people. A dime or a quarter – real money in those days – got you into the house of celluloid dreams to see yourself on the big screen.

Waters’ films are essentially herky-jerky home movies, and like that genre, after a couple of minutes, they’re boring. Well, boring unless you were nervously waiting for that magic moment when your face flashed on the screen.

Sometimes people didn’t want to be in the movies. A 72-minute compilation of Waters’ films posted to YouTube by the N.C. State Archives shows a woman backing out of the Liggett & Myers building in Durham. She never reveals her face to the camera.

The scene shows men and women streaming out of the building, perhaps after a shift. Waters is shooting from the sidewalk. He chose L&M because of the sheer number of subjects – the more people in his films, the more he expected to pay to see themselves on a movie screen two weeks later.

Waters, who died in 1997, became a movie entrepreneur out of necessity. He did sideline photo work in Davidson County, shooting crime scenes for law enforcement, for example, but at some point he realized the greater earning power of moving images.

Although some describe Waters’ films in the abstract prose common to modern English departments, he did not see them that way. His films are not documentaries. They have no narrative. They were made to help him and his family survive hard times.

He called them “Movies of Local People,” and taken in that light, they have a winsome innocence subverted by our knowledge that those in them were about to see their world upended. In the late 1930s, Japan was rampaging through China and East Asia and Adolf Hitler was arming for conquest in Europe.

In that sense, Waters’ films give us a 16-frame-per-second glimpse of people and places in the “good old days.” Except that they weren’t for most Americans. The Depression wouldn’t end until World War II.

When Waters was shooting his shorts on 16mm black and white film (he made few in color), he gave little thought to their preservation. He shot on reversal film, or what we used to call positive, and that is the film he showed in theaters. There was no negative for duplication.

Waters apparently had no means of longterm storage. He kept his films in his garage, and the wonder is that so many survived extremes of heat and cold.

When Duke Libraries digitizes a Waters film, it’s important to keep in mind that the celluloid film itself isn’t being preserved (that’s a separate and costlier process), only the information in the gel layer – the image.

No means of data storage lasts forever, but rendering images in high definition via scanners is the best we can do today. Film decays, but digital data can be replicated time and again.

Perhaps the Sumerians had the better idea. Their baked clay tablets record daily life 5,000 years ago. If they had had an H. Lee Waters, however, I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be his projectionist.