Herbert Lee Waters (1902-1997) was a studio photographer in Lexington, North Carolina. In the 1930s, he began supplementing his income by traveling to small towns across the South and filming the people who lived there going about their day.
Waters worked with local movie theaters to screen his 16-mm films, which he called “Movies of Local People,” charging audience members a nickel or dime to see themselves on the big screen.
Waters produced 252 films across 118 communities in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, the only such collection from an itinerant American filmmaker of that era. The surviving footage, now held in the Rubenstein Library at Duke, provides a rare glimpse of everyday life in the Piedmont South during the Depression.
We recently digitized our complete collection of Waters’ films and made them freely available online. Although most of the “local people” in them have long since passed on, contemporary viewers will recognize something of themselves in the faces that still live on in the archives.
To see Waters’ films online, visit our digital collections website.
To see what people are saying about the Waters films, check out some of these news stories:
- "Buckley Report Looks at Pictures, Films Before the Selfie" (Fox 8/WGHP)
- "An Ancestor of YouTube, Selfies and Vines" (NPR)
- "Finding Dad: A Man Spies the Father He Never Knew on an Aged Black-and-White Film Reel" (DukeToday)
- "Films Capture Everyday Life in the Depression-Era South" (DukeToday)
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