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An Ancestor Of YouTube, Selfies And Vines

Quietly watching historical film of real people doing real things can stir something powerful in us about our collective past. It's like being in a time machine with a big picture window. The images-in-action trigger real and imagined memories.

The moving pictures eerily remind us of where we came from, what those before us looked like and acted like — and appeared to care about — and about how we are all, in the end, the same and yet very different.

So when the folks at Duke University sent me an idea for the NPR History Dept. that involved archival film, I sat up straight in my chair.

Duke has recently released hundreds of hours of digitized Depression-era movies taken by Herbert Lee Waters, a North Carolina photographer.

From Dante, Va., 1940. The couple in the foreground is believed to be the Penlands, while they were in high school. H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries hide caption

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H. Lee Waters/Duke University Libraries

The Duke people thought I might be intrigued by the story of 71-year-old Furman Penland Jr., "who grew up in a tiny coal-mining town in Virginia called Dante and now lives in Asheville, N.C. He never knew his dad, who died in World War II when Furman was a baby."

Not too long ago, Penland was rummaging through the Waters files — those films of everyday Southern life shot during the 1930s and 1940s.

Lo and behold, in one clip from 1940, Penland noticed someone very familiar. "I recognized my mother and some other family members," Penland says in a story Duke posted about the discovery. "And my mother was walking with this guy. I kept going back and forth thinking this could be my dad. And I'm as sure as I could be that it is. It was shocking."

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That's a literal example of how old images can show us where we have come from. In the vast expanse of digitized films at Duke, we might all find a snippet of video that moves us — in the wistful, wondrous way that only history and memory can.

'Movies Of Local People'

I told Eric Ferreri — the guy at Duke who first contacted me — that I was intrigued by Penland's story, but that I am also fascinated by the filmmaker — Herbert Lee Waters — who made all the movies in the first place.

As it turns out, Waters — a studio photographer from Lexington, N.C. — had a sort of brilliant plan to make money during harsh economic times, while pursuing his passion. Between 1936 and 1942, he toured rural North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. He would enter a town, shoot a slew of random scenes packed with people at work, at play and at rest.

Sometimes in black-and-white, sometimes in color, he filmed people of different ages, different races — going to school, playing sports, working on cars, standing on sidewalks. He filled his frames with lot and lots of faces.

Herbert Lee Waters Duke University Libraries hide caption

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Duke University Libraries

Herbert Lee Waters

Duke University Libraries

Then Waters would contract with a local theater to show his silent 16-mm films before the featured Hollywood movie — the latest by, say, Alfred Hitchcock or the Marx Brothers. Folks in the audience could watch — perhaps for the first time — movies of themselves and their neighbors projected on the silver screen. And Waters would take home a percentage of the box office total.

Between 1936 and 1942, according to Duke University Libraries, Waters put together some 252 compilations in 118 communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The university believes it is the only such collection by an itinerant American documentarian of that era.

And those "Movies of Local People" — as Waters' projects were called — are the cultural ancestors of YouTube, selfies and Vines.

The legacy of Waters' unique combination of technique and entrepreneurial instinct, says archivist Craig Breaden, "left a large archive of diverse Depression-era images that in a sense is unrivaled."

Researchers working with the films, Breaden says, sometimes think of them as a gateway to a series of remarkable still images like the ones you see here. And they're historically helpful to understanding Depression-era life in diverse communities.

The legendary work of period photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, is evoked by Waters' vision.

"Thankfully, his compositional skill and ability to draw out people he'd never met," Breaden adds, "make these images meaningful."

And quietly powerful.

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Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org.