The defining moment in Ron Shelton’s 1988 film Bull Durham—still the best baseball movie ever made—happens off the baseball diamond, when career Carolina League groupie Annie Savoy regales career minor league catcher Crash Davis with the roll call of saints and greats she believes her soul passed through in its earlier incarnations. She asks Crash what he thinks and he replies, "How come in former lifetimes everybody’s somebody famous?"
Bull Durham has always held a special place in my heart because it was shot in my hometown—Durham, N.C.—albeit a few months after I left for college. Bull Durham didn’t capture Durham all that accurately, but the characters and the baseball scenes were great, and the film’s portrayal of ordinary mortals confronting their own limitations against the backdrop of a game awash in myth and legends gives it a resonance that will stand the test of time.
My father lived in Durham for 40 years as a history professor at Duke. As a social and oral historian, he’s spent the better part of his career researching and recording the stories of ordinary people who didn’t hit home runs, rule nations, or lead armies to war. He began this work in earnest in the summer of 1978 when he journeyed to Greensboro, Ala., in search of the descendants of an African-American family that had worked as slaves on a plantation outside of Durham some 130 years earlier.
He left for Alabama knowing his research could go one of several ways, the two worst-case scenarios being that the trail might go cold, or that he would, indeed, find the people he was looking for but they wouldn’t want to talk to him. It helped that he turned out to be a natural for this kind of work—his historical method and interviewing skills were sound, his manner was open, and his interest in the people and in the stories that his interviews might bring out was absolutely genuine.
He also had timing on his side: The most successful TV miniseries of the decade had aired only a year earlier, and while it wasn’t the inspiration for his work, it probably did provide some rationale for the project among people who otherwise might have wondered what the hell he was doing there. With Alex Haley practically a household name in the U.S. in the summer of 1978, my father quickly became known in the Cassimore church community of Greensboro as "the Roots man."
Here’s how he describes it: "I ventured to rural Alabama in 1978 to find descendants of enslaved people sent there from North Carolina in 1844, and hoping through those descendants to discover stories of their forebears’ experience of that forced migration to the Deep South. Armed with a tape recorder and a borrowed Nikon camera, I was lucky enough to find ‘my people.’ One community member knew the whole story, and she welcomed me into the rural black community formed when her ancestors bought the owner’s land in the 1870s. Dozens of interviews and hundreds of slides later, I had a story not just of slavery and freedom, but a vivid portrait of people in the late 20th century who were living the legacy of emancipation—and still battling for its completion."
Thirty years later, he’s now a regular at Cassimore family reunions. This summer’s gathering was an especially meaningful one. "I wanted to carry something special back to Alabama for the 2008 reunion," he says, "an ‘Album of Memories’ to commemorate the ninety-fourth birthday of Alice Hargress, my ‘Alabama Mama,’ who had opened the community and its history to me."
A few months before the reunion, my father and I had discussed the different possibilities for how he might present the photo history at the event. His first idea was a photo montage similar to the ones I’ve produced of my young son and for various family events over the years, and of the sort we’ve written about in EventDV. I would have been happy to put together the montage, but when we discussed what that would require on the delivery end—a specific time and place to show it; reliable projection, sound, and DVD playback equipment; and a music score that would appeal to four generations—it seemed like a risky proposition. Another issue was whether older members of the community would have DVD players for repeat viewings after the reunion was over. So we decided to go the "Album of Memories" route instead.
But the first challenge was not so much how to deliver the photo project as how to get the photos into usable form. The source material was a collection of several hundred slides of images my father had shot in the summers of 1978 and 1980. This presented two problems that any videographer who’s done memorial tribute videos or produced photo montages for social events has faced at one time or another: how to digitize source images that may not be in the most computer-friendly format and how to make the conversion process as efficient as possible.
As luck would have it, just as we were beginning to talk about the project, I received an email from a company called Plustek (www.plustek.com) offering a review unit of its OpticFilm 7300 35mm Film Scanner. This machine turned out to be the perfect solution for the slide-scanning phase of the project. My father (a confessed technophobe) had this to say about his experience with it: "The OpticFilm 7300 35mm Film Scanner offers the ability to digitize old slides and photographic negatives with dispatch and subtlety. Straightforward instructions facilitate the startup of the scanner and the installation of the software within minutes. For slides, a mounted slide holder securely clasps four slides at a time; the filmstrip holder secures six frames at a time. The scanner allows the straightforward digitization of each slide or negative in seconds. An Auto-Adjust icon in the toolbar optimizes the image. For more refined changes or corrections, other icons on the toolbar permit minutely calibrated alterations of highlights, brightness, and colors of an image."
With the slides scanned, restored, and burned to a CD that he sent to me in Wisconsin, the next step was to turn them into a book that Alice Hargress and her family could enjoy and treasure. Fortunately, I had an ace-in-the-hole there: columnist Kris Malandruccolo, a Heritage Makers consultant who could guide us through storybook creation and help us produce an album worthy of the occasion. Plus this would give me an opportunity to do something Kris had been urging me to do for a couple years—make a Heritage Makers storybook of my own and see what all the hoopla was about.
When I first emailed Kris about the project, telling her that my father wanted to create a storybook for a family reunion, she wrote me back excitedly and said, "That will be such a great keepsake for your son!" At the time I debated whether simply to tell her that there wouldn’t be anyone you might expect to meet at a Nathans family reunion in this book or just let her be surprised when she actually saw the proofs. I had a good chuckle over that before letting her in on more of the details of the project when I was beginning to put the book together.
While Kris was very helpful in setting up my Heritage Makers account and giving me a few great tips on how to position some of the photos and punch up the book with text after I sent her my rough draft, I was able to do the bulk of the book on my own. Heritage Makers has great on-site video tutorials and makes it very easy to upload the photos, arrange them to your liking, add captions and other text, and choose suitable backgrounds to give your book a professional look. It took only a few hours to put it together on my end—even as I fussed over a number of the organizational details of the book and read over the text innumerable times to make sure I’d properly matched all the photos and captions. Heritage Makers turned the book around in a few days, getting it into my father’s hands with plenty of time to spare before he headed south for the reunion.
The "Album of Memories" was a huge hit in Alabama. As my father had told me while I was working on the project, quite a few of the people in the photographs have passed on in the intervening years, and these old photos sparked all kinds of memories and stories.
And as it turned out, I did share the book with my 4-year-old son. Naturally, I wanted to show him the one photo of my father that’s in there—featuring him at exactly my current age—and to tell him something about who his "PopPop" is besides the guy who sends him colorful kids’ books and takes him to the aquarium and bakes a cake with him when we visit him in Denver.
Truth be told, researching and recording the history of nobody famous hasn’t made my father famous (at least not in this lifetime), but this picture of him captured something a lot of famous people probably never experience: a man at the precise moment when he discovered who he was and what he was born to do, among the people whose stories have become his life’s work. Though I suppose I’ve understood this on some level for most of my life, seeing this picture made it almost as much of a new discovery for me as it would be for my son.
Helping to sustain that sort of family continuity by capturing and crystallizing the moments that define us—for ourselves and for the generations to come—strikes me as exactly what makes the work of videographers so vital. Whether as midwife to a project like Alice Hargress’s "Album of Memories" or as editor of this magazine, I’m grateful just to be a part of it.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV.