Hugh MacRae Morton (1921 – 2006) looms large in recent North Carolina history. Over the course of his life, he took on many roles in his native Old North State – owner and commercial developer of Grandfather Mountain, conservationist, tourism promoter, political powerhouse, and photographer who was never caught without a camera. Morton’s passion for photography and photojournalism led him to take roughly a quarter of a million photographs during his lifetime. His photos document the land, people, and major events of North Carolina from mid-century to the early 2000s.
Hugh Morton began his photographic career at the young age of 13. By 14, he was published (in an NC tourism advertisement for Time magazine). Over his 60-year career, Hugh Morton captured many images of the North Carolina culture that he loved, and was frequently published in magazines such as Our State and Esquire and in multiple North Carolina newspapers.
Morton’s landscapes present the beauty of North Carolina’s natural spaces, from Grandfather Mountain in the west to the Outer Banks in the east. One of his landscapes is of particular interest to Charlotte: a Piedmont landscape that shows the Queen City’s skyline in the background. Always looking for new perspectives on the world around him, Morton discovered he could photograph the Charlotte metropolis from atop Grandfather Mountain, 87 air-miles away.
Morton made this striking skyline image on a particularly clear December day in 1993. The photograph shows Charlotte’s skyscrapers hazily rise in the orange glow of morning sunlight from across a rolling purple land. The land itself takes up three quarters of the frame with alternating bands of fringed treetops and low-lying clouds. Occasional water towers and buildings dot the landscape, but Morton’s perspective throws only Charlotte’s structures into relief against the bright sky. It is a color-filled, yet subtle, image that harmoniously displays North Carolina’s landscape and her largest city.
Morton was a talented portrait, as well as landscape, photographer. Through his familial and political connections, he had access to informal moments with famous musicians, religious leaders, presidents, and NC governors, among others. Morton photographed famous athletes, too – especially those at his alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. From courtside seats, he captured action shots of famous Chapel Hill athletes such as Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, Vince Carter, and Michael Jordan. He also trained his camera on the faces of farmers, teachers, tourists and other “regular” North Carolinians.
Morton used his landscape and portrait photography to promote North Carolina tourism, an industry he worked to advance throughout his entire career. He also documented events he sponsored which brought visitors to North Carolina, such as the Highland Games, a Scottish Heritage Festival on Grandfather Mountain, and Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama in Cherokee, North Carolina.
In each of his images, Morton told a story by arranging the visual elements of the scene, whether a portrait or a landscape.
Today, his images tell stories from North Carolina’s past: stories of historic daily life in the state; of her ever-changing natural settings and cities; and of famous personalities who shaped the state. Hugh Morton’s photographs allow us to see Charlotte, the state of North Carolina, and her people, from a new perspective.
Hugh Morton Timeline. UNC-TV, http://www.unctv.org/content/biocon/hughmorton/timeline
Morton, Hugh. Hugh Morton’s North Carolina (Chapel Hill & London, 2003).
Worth 1,000 Words: Essays on the Photographs of Hugh Morton on the “A View to Hugh Blog,” http://blogs.lib.unc.edu/morton/