A young girl runs across the screen from right to left. The camera follows her.
It’s a small, simple moment in a silent 16mm film comprised of small, simple moments shared with ordinary people. An innocuous 16th of a second, there and gone. A girl escapes the camera’s gaze; a man in overalls walks down the street toward a factory; a boy rides his bicycle in a circle.
Photography, be it with the photojournalist’s Leica, or the 16 frames-per-second shot with H. Lee Waters’ Cine-Kodak Special w/ Two Lens Turret in 1941, is the pursuit of capturing light on film. Of bringing something back that’s worth seeing again. It’s the resurrection of right now, a little later.
In the late 1930s and early 40s, while the United States was gripped by an economic depression that’s largely remembered from images that still photographers made while documenting the experiences of the rural poor, H. Lee Waters took to the back-roads of the South to see what regular folks looked like on film and on the silver screen.
The owner of a successful portrait studio in Lexington, North Carolina, Waters’ business was slowed by the Depression, so he traveled as a filmmaker and entrepreneur with a simple idea: people want to see themselves onscreen, and they’re willing to pay a few nickels for the chance. While filming, heʼd hand out cards that said, “You’re In The Movies — See Yourself As Others See You”, and heʼd return a few weeks later and hold a screening of the finished film.
What Waters managed to capture is an incredible visual cross-section of rural American life at the end of the Depression, including Kannapolis, North Carolina, a struggling mill town in the segregated South.
Waters’ “Movies of Local People” weren’t necessarily intended to be historical documentaries, destined for the archives of Duke University, or their place in the National Film Registry. Waters saw himself (and adorned his car with signage to prove it) as a “Maker of Hometown Movies” at a time when moving pictures had unequaled power and allure.
Watching “Kannapolis, NC”, Waters’ 16mm, three-reel portrait of a small mill town northeast of Charlotte, you see the South unfiltered, as it was lived, in public, on the street. Women go shopping, holding hands. Salesmen smile in front of their stores. It’s a democratic vision, a one-for-all, all-for-one approach. An attempt at a portrait of a town by filming every single person walking down the street.
In creating this portrait, Waters reveals the South’s most obvious inequity, segregation. Accordingly, Waters’ film is as segregated as its subject. The third reel begins with the white side of town, the smiling school kids and serious factory workers, the formal school portraits and sandlot ball players. And then suddenly, it’s as if you’re watching a different film, from an entirely different place.
When Waters crosses over to the black side of town, the scenes come alive with added resonance. Instead of seeing a shop owner, you see a man washing the shop’s windows. Instead of a parade of shiny cars down Main Street, there’s a man driving a weary-looking carriage horse. You see the car mechanics and clothes washers, cooks and bricklayers, each and all rendered in Waters’ high-silver film stock with a clarity as striking and as memorable as the WPA-era prints of Dorothea Lange, Bernice Abbott, or Walker Evans.
Quite literally, it’s the Depression, alive and on its feet, and blinking back at you.
Waters’ ultimate goal, to fill the seats at a screening at the local theater, didn’t lend itself to the most artful editing. Faces flash on screen and quickly disappear, just long enough to be recognized. The edits are so economical, you wonder how much film was cut, or if Waters’ “mash the button” approach controlled the film completely, in camera, with lightening-quick jump-starts and stops. Either way, the screenings of “Movies of Local People” (of which “Kannapolis, NC” was just one stop along the route) were apparently raucous affairs, with people yelling out names of friends and family they recognized on screen. A home movie for the entire town.
Remarkably, the filmmaker’s vision shines through. Watersʼ up-close portraits are particularly revealing, and he seems to capture people in quintessential gestures with the skill of a street photographer who has a sixth sense for the being in the right place at the right time.
The girl sprinting across the front lawn to avoid his camera was walking down the street toward Waters, unaware, until she realized she was being filmed, at which point she hid her face, leapt barefoot into the grass, and flashed Waters and his camera her shy smile. It’s in marked contrast to the scene that precedes it, of young boys gleefully dancing on a front porch to an unheard tune, twirling their toy guns, hamming it up. The camera shows only what its subjects choose to reveal.
In some ways, Waters’ effort echoes August Sander’s “People of the 20th Century”. Where Sander was a pure photographer, Waters was a photographer trying to earn some money and turned to cinema, but in making his movies, he spared little expense. His camera and film stock were first rate, yielding images that feel incredibly alive, thanks to a painstaking restoration funded by the library at Duke University, who holds possession of Waters’ archives, containing film shot in over 118 communities across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.
Which is what makes this still image so potent. Here’s a single frame of film, just enough unlike the one that preceded or followed it, a singular flash of life taken in the front yard of a house in North Carolina. A shy girl on the run from an unfamiliar man with a camera. Nearly every frame of Waters’ film is about that very moment, the recognition when the subject realizes there’s a man standing in front of them with a movie camera, and they’re either going to react, or choose not to react, and in taking the latter path, they’re still reacting.
It’s fascinating to watch, in quick take after quick take. The recognition in the eyes of those on the street that theyʼre being seen, and in that recognition, a resolution, for both cameraman and subject. In the late 30s and early 40s, hand-held movie cameras were hardly ubiquitous, and there was less awareness about the hazards of staring into them. Still, some hide their faces while others stare straight back. It’s proof positive that the minute you take out a camera, you change the world; the room without the camera is never the same as the room once the camera comes out of its bag.
Waters’ comfortability with both the camera and the reactions of those he films, creates a truly open, agenda-less record of Southern life. Interspersed with commercials from local business (he filmed, edited, and sold the airtime for those, too) Waters’ films say more about a photographer who, when facing a harsh economic climate, acquired a new skill and set to work, turning it into a profitable business. While his wife ran the studio in Lexington, Waters filmed the straight facts of the changing world around him, and in doing so, created something that’s nearly impossible to perfect; an artful rendering of banality — people as they are, plain as day.