In the age of YouTube, selfies and Vines, H. Lee Waters’ old films seem somewhat familiar.
They show random people doing random things in front of a camera. Some smile – others don’t – as they walk to and from church, leave school or waltz down streets in Clayton, Smithfield and dozens of other towns in rural North Carolina.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Waters shot his films to show back to the people he captured, a “See Yourself in the Movies” business venture that attracted large crowds at local theaters.
Nearly 80 years later, a digitization effort by Duke University Libraries has drawn a younger audience to the films, which offer a rare glimpse of life during the Great Depression. They’re a window into an era that many have only seen in still photographs.
After collecting more than 106 reels of film starting in the 1980s, Duke finished digitizing most of the movies last year and published them on its Digital Collections website in January. The films, which picture 56 communities, can be found at www.library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hleewaters.
Lisa McCarty, the curator of Duke’s Archive of Documentary Arts, said despite being online for only a month, the Waters collection is already the most popular digital collection to date.
“The popularity stems from folks in North Carolina looking for their hometowns, and they want to see what it looked like during that time,” McCarty said. “Some folks who were in the films are still alive or are descendents of people. Others want to see what the downtowns looked like.”
The films feature several towns in the Triangle area, including Chapel-Hill, Clayton, Selma, Smithfield and Fuquay-Varina.
In the Clayton film, Waters captures students walking to school, local businesses like Wall’s Shoe Shop, a dog walking down the street on its hind legs and lots of men wearing hats.
“It gives you a connection to the past and possible family members and friends,” said Clayton historian Pam Baumgartner.
“Looking at the businesses was amazing to me,” Baumgartner added. “I enjoyed seeing what they were wearing and what they were doing.”
Clayton’s Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library has its own copy of the Waters film, but Baumgartner said Duke’s film is far clearer. She thinks that will help people more easily identify subjects in the films, a pastime residents have done for years.
“I’ve had some patrons come in, and they said they’ve seen their uncles and dads,” Baumgartner said.
The Johnston County Heritage Center has sold copies of Waters’ Smithfield reel for more than 30 years. Director Todd Johnson said it’s been one of the most popular items in the center’s gift shop.
“What we really need to do is have a showing for older folks in their 80s and 90s who might remember those people,” Johnson said. “It would give it that extra context.”
A money-making venture
After shooting footage in a town, Waters would return to his native Lexington and process the film. He’d return to the town two to three weeks later and show the film to residents, said Waters’ biographer, Tom Whiteside, a Durham filmmaker and historian.
Whiteside said Waters eyed the films as a money-making venture. By capturing as many people as possible, he knew his subjects would come to watch themselves on the big screen. And he was right.
Waters’ log books, which are also part of Duke’s digital collection, show that he made $87.30 from a Clayton screening at the Wades Theatre in 1937. He made $95.77 from a 1937 screening at the Howell Theatre in Smithfield and a 1938 showing at the Selma Theatre, according to the logs.
Whiteside said while most of “See Yourself in the Movies” films are boring, with posed scenes, Waters’ style of filming as many people as possible made his work more interesting.
“He was often really just kind of wildly swinging the camera around,” Whiteside said.
A photographer by trade
The Waters family donated films to Duke, as did towns and local historical societies that bought the reels from Waters later in his career.
Waters, who died in 1997, spent most of his life working as a studio photographer in Lexington, where he also took photos of liquor stills for the sheriff’s department and of segregated lines to the movie theater.
“He captured life as it was and as it happened; there is no editorializing,” said Catherine Hoffmann, curator of the Davidson County Historical Museum in Lexington.
His photos are included in multiple displays at the museum, and Hoffmann said the county is opening an H. Lee Waters Photography Gallery this spring.
While commercial photography was his main interest, the films were a way to earn a living when families weren’t spending money on studio time during the Depression.
In addition to the films he shot in North Carolina, Waters also traveled to South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The film he shot of Kannapolis was placed on the National Film Registry in 2004.
Waters made more than 250 films in all, and Duke hopes its collection will grow as more people or groups realize they own one of his reels.
“It’s a phenomenal historical resource,” Hoffmann said. “He shot downtown areas, schools and factories. As a body of work, it’s outstanding.”
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