When in the late 1980s Duke Libraries first began collecting H. Lee Waters’ “Movies of Local People,” the only way the films could be seen was through projection or, given the deluxe treatment, played back on a video tape. Nearly 30 years later the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Duke Library’s Digital Projects and Production Services team are proud to bring the films online. It is an important milestone for a collection that has grown so organically through the years and whose individual films have come from so many sources.
The motion picture films in the H. Lee Waters Collection play out a history of North Carolina (and Virginia, and South Carolina) in the late 1930s and early 1940s unparalleled in scope and vision. But what would eventually become such a grand gift to the citizens and scholars and artists of the region did not begin with that in mind. Like fellow commercial photographer and North Carolinian Hugh Mangum, Waters might be considered an accidental documentarian, taking to the road in the depths of the Depression as a resourceful businessman, filling theatre seats with audiences who paid to see themselves in the movies. And yet, a natural behind the camera, Waters knew composition and how to frame a shot; more importantly, he knew people, loved to be around them, and could draw from his subjects positive reactions to this unexpected man with a camera, outside the mill, on main street, in front of the school, in the shop. As Waters biographer and documentarian Tom Whiteside has noted, Waters’ quick-cut aesthetic managed the immediate goal of getting as many townsfolk into the movie as possible while achieving, in the long-term, an archive of still image frames that is vast in its scope and ripe for investigation. From this perspective, the vernacular of his art puts him in the company of the prominent documentary photographers of his day.
Waters used reversal film, and the film he projected was the same film he shot in the camera, edited for length and his beloved special effects. He worked quickly, didn’t make copies, and after coming off the road in 1942 shelved the films until, later in life, he started selling them to their respective communities. Duke’s collection of H. Lee Waters films therefore owes a debt to the towns, libraries, and historical societies who over the years have sent, and continue to send, Waters’ legacy to Duke, recognizing that centralizing these resources works in favor of the region’s cultural heritage. It also means that over the years Duke has accrued film in all conditions and states of preservation. There is film in the collection that is literally turning to dust; there is also beautiful Kodachrome that could have been shot yesterday. Since 1988, too, audiovisual preservation has changed dramatically. Thankfully, and with the help of the National Film Preservation Foundation, a substantial number of the films have received full film-to-film preservation; nevertheless, earlier, heroic attempts at saving some films to videotape, some formulations of which are now severely degrading, have left us in a few cases with only a blurred shadow of what must have been on that original film. So our digital project reflects the films and their creator, but also the history of the collection at Duke.
Many at Duke Libraries have made the Waters collection what it is today, and those of us working on bringing the films online build on the efforts of librarians, archivists, and technical staff who were as passionate about these movies as we are. Ever in transition, the collection is marked by growth, an element that we see as integral to the website. In fact we are already adding to it. In addition to the films and (for some of them) shotlists, there are oral history interviews with the children of H. Lee Waters. Tom Waters and Mary Waters Spaulding have not only been essential in bringing their father’s films online, they have a unique perspective on a talented man whose contribution to the history of North Carolina was only beginning to be appreciated when he died in 1997. Waters’ home movies will be added to the site soon, and we anticipate presenting select work inspired by the Waters films, because, in addition to their own sublime artistry, the movies remain a magnet for artists and documentarians mining archival sources. One such work will debut March 20 for Duke Performances, as Jenny Scheinman premieres her work “Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait,” based around film from the collection.
Of course, we also hope the site might draw other Movies of Local People out of hiding, because while Duke and the State Archives hold a good number of the films, we still don’t know the whereabouts of some of them. So when you visit the site, take advantage of the embed and share functions accompanying each of the videos, use them on your blog or Facebook page, guide people to H. Lee Waters at Duke, and who knows? It may lead them to investigate further, to liberate that can of film that’s been sitting in the closet or biding its time at the local library.
Post Contributed by Craig Breaden, Audiovisual Archivist, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.