H. Lee Waters’ Movies of Local People

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H. Lee Waters Film Collection at Duke University Libraries – from 1936 to 1942 North Carolina photographer H. Lee Waters made hundreds of captivating short silent films of local people.

During the Depression, when many couldn’t spare hard-won wages for a portrait but did allow themselves the luxury of going to the movies, Waters supplemented the family’s income by traveling across North Carolina and parts of Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, to film the people of the region’s communities. Between 1936 and 1942, Waters collaborated with local movie theaters to screen his films, which he called Movies of Local People and billed with the phrase “See yourself in the movies!” As a filmmaker, Waters produced 252 films across 118 communities. In addition to selling tickets to the many people who appeared in his films, he also sold advertising space in his movies to local businesses.

These are fascinating, mesmerizing glimpses of people and smaller towns. He shows us school kids, teachers, women doing laundry, gas station attendants cleaning windshields, a dog performing tricks, store signs of all kinds, young men pretending to box, small groups of kids, large groups, adults walking along the street, roller skaters, businessmen, toddlers, playgrounds, rows of shops, gas stations, men shoveling coal, sitting on the front porch – all the small gestures of daily life.  And these people are smiling, clearly having fun and intrigued to be on film.  At least most of them are, with very few exceptions.  Waters’ camera lingers on faces, waiting for the smile, often in response to something he’s said.  There’s great respect here for all of the people he films. You can’t help but smile as you watch, wishing you could know the stories behind these faces from so long ago.

Thanks to NPR’s post Back Before Children Looked Childish for leading to this wonderful collection.


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