by Regina Longo, Film and Media Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

The first time I saw Kannapolis, North Carolina, it was through the lens of H. Lee Waters' camera.  It was an early fall day and I was visiting Colorlab to drop off a shipment of film from the archive where I worked at the time. We were busy screening some stunning black and white 35mm preservation prints struck from nitrate original camera negatives that came from the archive's collection when Russ began to talk about a new collection of 16mm materials that had just arrived at Colorlab from Duke University. The enthusiasm in Russ's voice was contagious. I anxiously awaited my first glimpse of the 16mm preservation prints of footage from Kannapolis. I sat in silence, amazed by the faces that were illuminating the screen. One reel finished, and Russ threaded up another. This time the location was Chapel Hill, N.C.  The texture, the contrasts, the luminosity were all so palpable. As the residents of Chapel Hill came toward the camera, I wanted to reach out and touch them, and for a moment, suspending rational belief and immersing myself in the images on screen, I did. I came back down to earth momentarily as Russ explained to me the practical reasons for the intensity and clarity of the image: the contrast and the resolution of these images were so heightened due to the high silver content of the black and white camera reversal stock that the filmmaker had available to him at the time, and of course, the skill of the cameraperson.  In fact, even to my trained eye, it was difficult for me to determine that what I was looking at were actually 16mm preservation prints, rather than 35mm nitrate.

While we sat in the darkened room continuing our journey through the North Carolina of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Russ began quizzing me: "So, who do you think the cameraman was? Do you think he was a member of the local community? Do you think he was a professional? How much footage do you think he shot before editing this? How much editing do you think he did; in camera editing or over a light box with a splicer?  Do you think he was black or white? What condition do you think the original reversal was in when it arrived on our doorstep? How much shrinkage do you think these reels exhibited? " All of these questions seemed relatively simple for an archivist trained in assessing and handling actuality footage, yet I was still so caught up in the images scrolling past my eyes that I did not answer a single one correctly. I was completely in the dark. I did not remain that way for long. Russ began to fill me in on the history of the films, the filmmaker, and his subjects and I was hooked. Over the past year and a half, thanks to that initial introduction in the screening room at Colorlab, I have come to know and appreciate the vanishing world of once bustling mill towns in the Piedmont region of the U.S. South.

The filmmaker responsible for capturing these priceless images of working class life from 1936 to 1942 was H. Lee Waters of Lexington, N.C. His family relocated from South Carolina to North Carolina in 1917 when his parents went to work for Erlanger Mills. As a teenager, Waters worked in the mills alongside his parents and while he appreciated the value of a hard day's work in the factory, he pictured a different future for himself. Literally: a life in pictures. Waters never strayed far from this world of textile mills and their workers. You could say that he actually went deeper into this world with his 16mm movie camera than most of the inhabitants of the towns he visited. And he visited many, making at least 252 films in 118 towns throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee.

 The sheer volume of motion picture films that Waters produced in six years is in itself astonishing. Keep in mind that this was during the Great Depression. In fact, Waters generated the film business to supplement the declining income from his still photography studio. While he traveled the countryside making "Movies of Local People," his wife, Mabel Elizabeth,  and an assistant ran the photography studio. Waters had apprenticed in this same studio in 1925.  One year later, his mother helped him buy it and Waters was off and running. Unlike many studio photographers, Waters made a name for himself by taking his camera out of the studio and documenting local life in and around Lexington, in many ways functioning more as a documentarian than a portrait photographer. He seemed to have a sense for noteworthy happenings and it is thanks to Waters that local historians today can recount in both pictures and words the construction of the High Rock Dam, as well as the visits of Charles Lindbergh and later, Harry Truman. (For more biographical information, please see the December 10, 1997, article by William Kessler in the Lexington Dispatch.  

Waters approached his everyday subjects with the same enthusiasm as he did those who made front-page news and this is what initially drew me into the images that were meticulously preserved by Colorlab under the steady hand and watchful eye of Julia Nicoll, Colorlab's Optical Department Head. In addition to the Movies of Local People that he made in Kannapolis, Waters' Movies of Local People from the towns of Asheboro, N.C., Granite Falls, N.C., and Salisbury, N.C., arrived on Colorlab's doorstep for preservation in June, 2003, from Duke University.  Most of the films exhibited wear and age; some showed more significant signs of damage from what is called vinegar syndrome. The tell-tale signs of this problem are a strong acetic acid smell and a loss of plasticity and flexibility in the film that results in a physically noticeable dimensional shrinkage of the film reel, as well as an increase in brittleness, often to the extent that the films are likely to break even when handled with care. Usually, films that have vinegar syndrome have a white flaky surface formation over the emulsion that resembles frost on a windowpane.  In order to duplicate the films, Colorlab used an optical printer, which registers each frame in a projector gate. A lens and bellows are adjusted to focus the frame to the camera gate for duplication. A wet gate system, used with the optical printer, immerses the film in a liquid called perchloroethylene while the film is transported and registered frame by frame. The liquid fills in the scratches on the base side of the original film so that they are not transferred to the newly created film element. H. Lee Waters shot on Kodachrome (color) and black and white reversal film stocks. Colorlab created color internegatives or black and white dupe negatives depending on the format of the original footage.

Preparing the film for this essential printing phase is not always easy. In the case of the H. Lee Waters' films, the work involved assessing the condition of the original material, checking the shrinkage, noting any peculiar smells, noting the presence of surface damage like torn perforations, or even that white particulate matter on the film surface that is indicative of vinegar syndrome and the actual leaching out of plasticizer.  In the case of Waters' Kannapolis, vinegar syndrome was indeed evident. Prior to duplication, Colorlab staff followed all the other standard preservation procedures, such as noting whether the films have high frame lines or any other sort of frame-line irregularities. In optical printing, the goal is to make the next best representative preservation element. If changes in frame lines are not noted, this "original" frame line can be "printed-in" to the new element that is being created. This sort of visual artifact would then be visible on screen and interfere not only with the content of the image, but also with an audience's enjoyment of the screened image. For Waters' films, frame lines had to be watched very carefully. Many of his trick shots had very high frame lines that needed adjustment.

In addition to frame line irregularities, it is important for the film preservationist to know the number of splices and whether they are original or repaired. Once all of these irregularities are noted, the actual preparation of the films for printing can begin. The most important repairs include fixing broken perforations (the perforations along the edge of a piece of film are the holes that allow the sprocket teeth of a projector or a printer to drive the film) and fixing weak or poor original splices (to ensure that the original film does not break apart again while going through the printer). A conscientious technician will always want to know as much about the physical condition of the film before printing it in order to be prepared for any complications that will require adjustment to the optical printer while making the duplication. This is a form of preventative medicine--a holistic approach to film preservation. It is interesting to note that Waters' films have few splices.  His objective was to crank films out quickly to show them almost immediately because his subjects were also the audience.  Waters thus stuck to a process of economy and spontaneity in shooting his subjects. The scarcity of splices shows his skill, focus, and purpose as a filmmaker and cameraman as well as his ability to edit in his head, following a preconceived, yet unwritten script.

The few splices in the Movies of Local People films usually serve the practical purpose of attaching the 100-foot camera rolls he shot using the Kodak Cine Special camera or for cutting in trick shots. Waters loved to put in shots of kids jumping backwards into the air or riding bicycles in reverse to wow his audiences and the tricks never failed to do just that. In order to achieve this astonishing on-screen effect, Waters held the camera upside-down and then cut the footage and flipped it. Shots with fast or speeded-up motion were created by shooting single frames instead of shooting continuously at a set speed.  Waters also incorporated split screens using a set of mattes that were provided by the camera manufacturer, the Eastman Kodak Co., and came with the camera, in order to create effects like the upper torsos of townspeople floating above the sidewalk,  another surefire crowd pleaser!  He also used iris effects to highlight his subjects.

 In the case of H. Lee Waters' film "Kannapolis," Colorlab's Julia Nicoll noted that there was a 100-foot section toward the end of the film that was actually identified as a positive print, rather than a camera reversal original. This was evident because the winds on these two pieces of film were not the same. To keep the new duplication element all the same wind, Julia changed the orientation of the wind during the optical phase of preservation so that it would "read" like the rest of the film. These films also exhibited a fairly high range of overall shrinkage (1.5% to 2.5%), but an experienced optical preservationist like Julia has honed her skills to the point of being able to handle shrinkage as extreme as 5+%. The higher the rate of shrinkage, the more time it takes to print the film. Still, Waters' Kannapolis took quite some time to print.

The time spent on this meticulous process was well worth it. The work of H. Lee Waters is unique for so many reasons, but perhaps the most striking "trick" this man had up his sleeve was his uncanny ability to quickly win the trust of a near total stranger on the street. Waters' subjects seem to open up in front of the camera at the precise moment they encounter the filmmaker. As anyone who has ever held a camera understands, this is a rare occurrence, yet it is perhaps the most important characteristic of a successful documentarian. Waters had that unique blend of charisma coupled with a keen sense of observation and near perfect timing. 

The second time I saw Kannapolis, it was with my own eyes. On Saturday, February 5, 2005, Julia Nicoll and I attended a one-time only restoration screening of H. Lee Waters' 3-reel film "Kannapolis, N.C." at the historic Gem Theater located in downtown Kannapolis. The event was sponsored by the Kannapolis History Associates and the Kannapolis Public Library. The folks of Kannapolis are rightfully proud that their home has now garnered itself a place on the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. In late 1996, the United States Congress passed landmark legislation creating the independent, nonprofit National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), a public-private partnership to benefit the film preservation efforts of American film archives, historical societies, and similar institutions. Each year, the National Film Board, under the auspices of the U.S. Library of Congress, selects a number of films that are added to the National Film Registry. The Registry represents every genre of film and spans the history of American cinema, all in an effort to further the important work of a variety of individuals and archival institutions devoted to creating, preserving, and making accessible our cultural patrimony. [National Film Preservation Foundation]

The National Film Preservation Foundation grant money that enabled Duke University's Visual Materials Archivist Karen Glynn to work closely with Colorlab to preserve these reels and then to lobby the National Film Board for a well-deserved place on the 2004 National Film Registry is the obvious fruit of many years of behind-the-scenes work.

When Karen arrived at Duke in 2001, she brought with her a keen interest and wealth of knowledge of American amateur and itinerant filmmakers, having previously worked as an independent film researcher in Washington, DC, and as an archivist in the Southern Media Archive at the University of Mississippi. When I first spoke to Karen about H. Lee Waters, it was evident that she had done her research and that her work with the H. Lee Waters Collection went beyond her responsibilities to Duke's archives. H. Lee Waters' work moved her and for this reason, she did all that she could to ensure the lasting legacy of his films; she was integral in arranging the Kannapolis screening.  I had the chance to meet Karen and to speak to her, along with Norris Dearmon, the articulate 83-year-old volunteer at the Kannapolis Historical Society who also helped to make the event happen. I arrived at the Kannapolis Library around 10am on the morning of February 5 in order to spend some time with Norris and Karen before the public screening scheduled for later that afternoon. []

As I drove into town and headed toward Main Street that morning, I expected to see a world unchanged by time--a picture postcard moment--an H. Lee Waters snapshot, if you will, even though nearly 70 years had passed since H. Lee Waters first filmed in Kannapolis. These images were still flickering in my mind. The streets were still there; the buildings were still there; the brightly painted red and white smoke stacks bearing the name of the Cannon Mills factory still loomed over the main square. I felt as if I was stepping onto a studio back lot and that any minute, the soundstage would be bustling with cameras, crew, actors, and extras. I closed my eyes, imagining for a minute that I would reopen them to a brightly lit set and the sound of H. Lee Waters camera rolling. I opened my eyes to the bright light of day, but the streets remained empty, the factory gates remained closed, no workers would exit those doors today and wave to H. Lee Waters' camera. In fact, no workers would exit those padlocked gates ever again.

Almost two years ago, the Cannon Mills factory ceased operation; Plant Number One, the original Cannon Mills factory that had opened in 1906 in Kannapolis--the "city of looms"--had been sold by its last owners, Pillowtex Corporation, along with 16 other plants that originally formed the J. W. Cannon empire, at one time, the world's largest producer of household textile products such as sheets, towels, and bedspreads.  The purchaser was David Murdoch, the primary owner of the Dole pineapple fortune whose company is consistently cited by Fortune 500 as one of the 20 wealthiest US-owned corporations. This was the second time he bought the properties, this time  primarily as a speculative real estate investment. This time, he quickly shut all the factories down, causing the largest mass lay off in the history of the state (about 4,800 people). Murdoch was not thinking of the past or current residents of Kannapolis who had devoted a lifetime to this mill town; he was thinking toward the future. The town of Kannapolis is located about 27 miles from Charlotte, N.C., which is currently the fastest growing financial center in the United States. According to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, more banking resources ($1.3 trillion) are headquartered in Charlotte than in all but one other U.S. city (New York). Five of the nation's top 150 banks operate in Charlotte; the nation's largest two banks based on deposits, Bank of America and Wachovia, are both headquartered in Charlotte. Their combined deposits total more than a half trillion dollars. Kannapolis is perfectly situated to be the next bustling suburb of Charlotte.

Kannapolis, like other mill towns, offered many amenities:  Mill workers lived in craftsmen style, low-rent homes with low utility costs, free maintenance and garbage collection, while paying no taxes. Services the company provided included a YMCA, the hospital, a police force, fire protection, water treatment, and a sewage system. A close partnership existed among government, business, and community organizations. This situation in Kannapolis obtained until Pillowtex filed for bankruptcy.

The final demise of Pillowtex was drawn out; much of the workforce had been on reduced hours for up to two months prior to closing and many workers were already in a financial crisis. The situation that I witnessed in Kannapolis in February, 2005, was not encouraging. It seemed bizarre to be visiting an economically depressed town, where every other home appeared to sport a "For Rent" or "For Sale" sign, in order to witness the revival of a film made during the Great Depression that depicted a much more prosperous Kannapolis.  ("For Residents of Kannapolis, Unemployment Is as American as Apple Pie,",1518,378940,00.html)

I could not even begin to imagine what the lifelong residents of Kannapolis were experiencing that afternoon when they arrived at the Gem Theater for a free screening that the local paper billed as an "Old Time Movie." At the hotel that morning I had spoken to a young girl at the front desk who said she had hoped to attend the screening but unfortunately had to work. I took this as a good sign, that the younger residents of the community were aware of the screenings and interested in their town's history. The crowd forming outside the theater thirty minutes before show time was made up mostly of senior citizens -- those who could recall Kannapolis in its heyday. The crowd was mostly white, although the paper had made note of the fact that the films also featured an entire reel shot in the black residential neighborhoods of the then segregated town. This highly anticipated event had turned into a pleasant social gathering that had the air of a reunion, with many residents greeting each other like long lost friends, exchanging stories about their families, and second guessing who and what they were about to see on screen.

Once the doors opened, the audience streamed in quickly, filling the entire orchestra section, both balconies, and then the aisles of the 960-seat Gem Theater. Norris Dearmon welcomed everyone to the screening and as the film began rolling, he attempted to explain to the crowd that they would have to stay alert for this screening, reminding the audience, "Now, this isn't video you are about to see, this is silent film, the real deal, and those images move pretty quick and you can't rewind it back."  He encouraged audience members to shout out when they recognized people and places on screen. He passed the microphone to Judge Horton for reel two, and finally to Corinne Kenna, a former school teacher and one of the founding members of the friends of Kannapolis Public Library for reel three, which focused mainly on the black community known as "Fishtown." These three pillars of the community were all residents of Kannapolis at the time that H. Lee Waters chronicled the daily life in that town and they each lent a particular air of authenticity and nostalgia to the images that illuminated the screen.

I settled into my seat for the two-hour program. It was not long after Norris introduced reel one that a man directly behind me piped up, "Mr. Rove, the bandleader, well I'll be darned!"  Having seen the color footage of the J. W. Cannon High School marching band, several times at Colorlab, and at the 2004 Orphan Film Symposium [ felt in some way as if I too would soon be calling out to the screen. A few minutes later, a woman called out, "Look! It's Greta Sue Catchen! And Billy Wells! Oh, oh, my goodness, I know her! And I know him also! I can get the faces, but not all the names.  Oh look! They are playing dodge ball! I love dodge ball!" At this moment the spry 83-year-old Norris chimed in with his understated southern drawl, "I believe I could still dodge that ball now." The theater took on the air of a revival meeting as the call and response between the screen and the audience continued for the duration of the program.

Several audience members wanted to stay and screen the films again to catch another glimpse of their mothers, their fathers, their childhood playmates, their sweethearts, and often themselves. People lined up for copies of the flyer on how to purchase video copies of the footage from Duke University for home use. Two local journalists quickly found the one woman in the crowd who seemed to know everyone and made arrangements to sit with her and Norris Dearmon at the Kannapolis Public Library and review the footage again. The time-intensive work of documenting the faces of "Kannapolis, N.C." could now begin.


Courtesy of H. Lee Waters Photography Collection, Davidson County Historical Museum

For archivists like Karen Glynn, these are the moments that make the effort worthwhile. Karen has not stopped with Kannapolis, or Chapel Hill, or Asheboro, although these are some of Waters' better-known films. She will not rest until she has located or preserved all of the 252 known films shot in 118 communities that H. Lee Waters meticulously documented in the business ledgers that are a part of his collection at the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University. In the fall of 2004, Karen sent letters to all of the communities documented by H. Lee Waters whose film was unaccounted for. Responses to those letters in the form of information, questions, and reels of film are still trickling in to her office. Karen is currently searching for $120,000 dollars to preserve the rest of the original film in the H. Lee Waters collection waiting impatiently to go to the laboratory. She can be contacted at


With special thanks to Julia Nicoll at Colorlab for technical support and all photographs not otherwise credited.

Special thanks to Tom Waters //  Karen Glynn , Visual Materials Archivist , Rare Book,  Manuscript and Special Collections Library, Duke University  ///  Catherine Matthews Hoffmann, Museum Curator, Davidson County Historical Museum  (

and Thomas Aschenbach: Page Design



(Afterthoughts from Russ Suniewick)

Why are these H. Lee films so enormously viewable and restorable?  One gets the impression viewing these images that, other than the occasional hockey puck and brittle and curled examples due to hard-core bad storage, they exude a remarkable beauty that is unique.  These films have also been pretty easy to work with to create preservation masters. As a film preservationist, I'm thinking this has to point to how the film was handled, presented, and otherwise cared for during the time it was being regularly exhibited. I found little in the way of wear and tear at the heads and tails of these films when I first examined them. Large amounts of thread-up leader at both ends appear to be the reason for only a very few projector rubs in the first few scenes where great shredding and scraping is usually found due to improper threading. I remember reading that H. Lee's son, Tom, occasionally accompanied his dad on these screenings so I called him to see what he remembers.

Tom reports no one touched those films except H. Lee. Part of the deal H. Lee made with the theaters was he maintained control over the exhibition and ran the event from the booth. Then, remembering what Regina always told me regarding the priorities of small town projection booths, the 16mm projector always seemed to be placed in a manner that cried out "second class citizen," never placed properly on axis in the middle of the booth between the 35's, but off in the corner guaranteeing half of its projected image was sure to be somewhat soft. So I asked Tom if he remembered how his dad dealt with this. Did the images appear crisp and bright or muddy? The answer was "bright and clear." The fact is, H. Lee had invested in a Bell&Howell FilmOArc silent projector with a rectifier, which he lugged around to each theater. This surely gave him the optimum 16 to 18 foot candles of illumination needed for professional-looking imagery. He used this system until the government confiscated the projector (Tom says "forced him to sell") for the war effort in 1942, which was about the time H. Lee stopped exhibiting.