DURHAM, NC – Photographer Hugh Morton, a photographic legend in the North Carolina region known for his sports photographs and wildlife scenes, died Thursday June 1 at his home in Linville, NC, from cancer. He was 85.
North Carolina Govenor Mike Easley told The Herald-Sun in Durham, "If there ever were to be a Mr. North Carolina, it would be Hugh Morton."
Morton was a Charter member as well as a Life member of NPPA, joining the organization in June 1946, the year it was formed. Morton was presented with the Kenneth P. McLaughlin Award of Merit from NPPA in 1951, and after 40 years of service the Burt Williams Award
His photographs have appeared in Time, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and many other magazines, and his pictures hang in visitors’ centers along North Carolina highways and parks. Early in Morton’s career he freelanced for the Charlotte News, the Greensboro Daily News, the Raleigh News & Observer, and the Winston-Salem Sentinel.
In addition to his reputation as one of the most enduring photographers of the Carolinas, Morton also owned Grandfather Mountain, a popular tourist attraction in the region. Morton was well known across North Carolina as an environmentalist, a preservationist, and promoter of the region. In 2003 the North Carolina Humanities Council gave Morton their highest honor, the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities. In 1998 he was Wilmington’s third inductee into the city’s Walk of Fame.
Morton collaborated with longtime friend Ed Rankin of Concord, NC, in 1988 on a book about North Carolina’s people, places, and events. A book of Morton’s photographs called Hugh Morton’s North Carolina came out in 2003, and a second volume of it is scheduled for publication later this year.
In the preface to Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, he wrote, “My parents gave me my first somewhat primitive camera when I was thirteen and a camper at Camp Yonahnoka in the mountains near Linville. Little did I know then, when I took the camp's photography course in 1934, that photography would become the principal means for expressing my thoughts and fostering my interests for the rest of my life. I had no inkling then of the interesting people and events I would eventually cover, or the host of loyal friends that photography would help me make.”
During World War II, Morton served in the U.S. Army in the photo lab at the Army’s anti-aircraft school in Camp Davis, NC, and as a movie film photographer in 161st Signal Corps Photo Company in battle in the South Pacific, switching from still photography to movie cameras when an officer assigned him to replace a photographer killed the previous day in battle in Bougainville. Morton wrote, “The captain to whom I reported said, ‘Morton, you look like a movie man,’ and from that point I did my shooting with a movie camera.”
With a movie camera, Morton covered the 25th Infantry Division invading Luzon in the Philippines. “The fighting was pretty fierce when we went ashore,” Morton wrote. “I shot hundreds of feet of movie footage that was shipped directly back to Washington.”
In March 1945, Morton covered General Douglas MacArthur as he inspected the troops. A few days later Morton was wounded while trying to flush a Japanese sniper out of a cave, and he was honorably discharged from the service, with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, and returned home to North Carolina.
“I returned to North Carolina, free to work in earnest to photograph the many people and subjects that interested me in our state,” he wrote in his book. He also noted, “The best photographers I know are the ones who know how to work with other people.”
Morton was also the first chairman of the USS Battleship North Carolina Commission, and was involved in the Save the Battleship and the Cape Hatteras Lightouse projects
Morton is survived by a daughter, Catherine Morton, and a grandson, Hugh MacRae "Crae" Morton III, who took over Grandfather Mountain in 2005. He represents the fifth generation of the family to take care of Grandfather Mountain since 1885.