Born in 1902, Herbert Lee Waters spent the majority of his life in Lexington, North Carolina, operating a photography studio. Looking for a way to supplement his income during the Great Depression, he began traveling across the South on weekends to film the daily life of people in various communities.
The H. Lee Waters Film Collection, the largest collection of his films, includes more than seventy black-and-white movies Waters created between 1936 and 1942 as he crisscrossed North Carolina and parts of South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. These beautifully photographed films provide a rare glimpse of what it was like to live in the Piedmont region of the U.S. during the Great Depression. In addition, Waters, who was white, was one of the few filmmakers to capture relaxed and intimate scenes from everyday life in African-American communities.
When he arrived in a town, Waters would film as many residents as possible, often setting up his camera at a main intersection. He also typically filmed schoolchildren entering or leaving school and workers arriving at or departing from mills, plants, and factories. A few weeks later, after editing the footage, Waters would return to the town and screen his films at a local movie house, charging residents a nickel or dime admission to see themselves on screen.
Waters often included trick shots to engage his audience, such as trains moving backwards or children jumping in reverse. The films are dominated by shots of crowds and individual faces, which he filmed in order to increase the size of his audience and his revenue. Waters also captured a wide variety of activities, including school recitals, sports events, and mechanics at work, along with scenes from local businesses and factories, many of which underwrote his screenings.
A digital collection of his films will be available to the public this fall.