16 mm, American history, black and white photography, entertainment, Great Depression, H. Lee Waters, historic films, history, movies, museum, musings, people, silent films, southern history, thoughts, Wake Forest
So I didn’t watch the Golden Globes. Award shows are so exhausting. I agonize over who’s going to wear the wrong dress, fall off her stilettos, or venture into some wildly off-kilter improvisational acceptance speech.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love the movies. In fact, I’m obsessed with films by a photographer from Lexington, North Carolina named H. Lee Waters. He survived the Great Depression by traveling and making Movies of Local People in literally dozens of southern towns. He’d charge folks to see themselves on the silver screen.
The thing is… these movies are completely amazing in a way Hollywood movies reliably aren’t. They’re black and white. They’re silent. They show men walking out of the hardware store, or kids holding hands in front of the elementary school, or ladies in hats. People look into the camera and smile, or laugh, or mug, or hide their faces. The subjects are beautiful, certainly. But they’re also real. They’re part of history but don’t know it yet. There’s a deep sensation of time passing when you watch these films. The clothing’s outdated… but you know those people.
They’re so recognizably us.
There’s a growing appreciation of H. Lee Waters films. One is immortalized in the Library of Congress. Many are now preserved at the Duke University Library. (Our museum has its own copy… from Waters’ visit to Wake Forest in October of 1939.) You can see clips on YouTube. Websites have sprung up extolling his massive talent for capturing people in completely authentic and open moments… convincing everyone from infants to codgers to smile for the camera.
A couple weeks ago, I edited the museum’s 40-minute film into a three-minute music video. I did it for the museum website. But it was so much fun, I hope you like it. Frankly, it kind of brings a tear to my eye. Not only because I’m shamelessly sentimental… which I am. But also because I see myself in so many of those faces. I’ve been the child, the student, the young woman, the mother. My time is also quickly passing.
Today I spoke with a lady down the street who’s turning 96-years-old this year. She lived here in town when Waters came to shoot this film. She told me how lonely it is to be the only one left. When I watch this Movie of Local People... I understand what she means.
Maybe that’s because I understand the people Waters filmed. They move me. Isn’t that the definition of great art? In that sense, his movies are as wonderful as anything honored at the Golden Globes. In addition, nobody’s wearing the wrong dress.
You don’t worry about anyone in these Movies of Local People. Everyone… in that moment, in front of that camera… was feeling something special. They were being something special. It was like they’d found this rare intersection of reality and fantasy. They knew Waters was selling something simple and yet surprisingly ephemeral… the chance to See Yourself as Others See You.
Like those awards show honorees… they didn’t want to mess up. It was their moment. And they owned it.
What’s so surprising is how completely important… historically and artistically… this modest Depression Era project truly is.