The View from the Best Seat in the House

Sports are in full swing this time of year here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—especially with both Tar Heel basketball teams making it to the “Sweet Sixteen” round of the women’s and men’s NCAA Basketball Championship tournaments.  So given the current climate of this sporting season, our frequent guest contributor Jack Hilliard offers us an overview of Hugh Morton’s sports photography.

Hugh Morton with camera during UNC basketball game[Photograph cropped by the editor.]

A famous UNC basketball anecdote says fans were warned not to block the view from “Mr. Morton’s seat.”  But “Mr. Morton’s seat” was not always confined to a single place.

When TV basketball analyst Billy Packer tells the story of his first encounter with legendary sports photographer Hugh Morton, it goes something like this:

“I was an assistant coach at Wake Forest in the early 1960s, and on this particular day, I was assigned to scout the North Carolina Tar Heels during an ACC Tournament game. I was having a problem because this photographer kept standing up in front of my courtside position.  ‘Sit down,’ I yelled.  But to no avail. And he was also pulling for the Tar Heels and that didn’t set too well either.  Then I hollered, ‘if you don’t sit down, I’m going to knock you down.’ I then felt a tap on my shoulder.  It was a policeman.  The officer said, calm down son . . . you don’t understand . . . that’s Mr. Hugh Morton.  You will calm down and do what he wants you to.”

Hugh MacRae Morton, for almost seven decades, was called the dean of North Carolina photographers and his sports photography became legendary during that time.  It was routine for him to come up from the North Carolina coast or down from the North Carolina hills to cover sporting events in the Triad and Triangle.  In a time long before digital cameras and Photoshop, from his “front row seat” he became a “laureate with a lens,” documenting the sports heroes from NC State, Duke, Wake Forest  and of course his beloved Tar Heels from UNC.  The images frozen by his camera lens comprise the who’s who in North Carolina sports history—David Thompson and Everett Case from NC State . . . Ace Parker and Wallace Wade from Duke . . . Bones McKinney and Dickie Hemric from Wake . . . and Charlie Justice and Michael Jordan from Carolina.  The list goes on: Dean Smith, Jim Beatty, Tony Waldrop, Mia Hamm, Lenny Rosenbluth, and Don McCauley.  When the Tar Heels played for a championship (1982 and 1993) or were invited to a bowl game (1949 and 1950), Hugh Morton was there.  But Hugh Morton was more than the photographer who got the picture of the big play; Morton got pictures of the coaches, the mascots, the fans, and the cheerleaders.  Sportswriters, broadcasters, and administrators were also included in his portfolio. And with many of those folks, he became friends and followed them away from the gridiron or hardwood and captured them at play in sports other than their specialty.

During UNC’s “Golden Age of Sports” (1946-1949) Morton took some of his most famous and imaginative images.  He photographed golfing great Harvie Ward, tennis star Vic Seixes, all-America divers Norman Sper and Sara Wakefield, and the incomparable Charlie Justice.  In fact, that golden age is often called the “Justice Era”: a time when Morton photographs could often be found in, and on the cover of, national magazines.

Hugh Morton’s North Carolina sports photography was not limited to the campuses of the Big Four.  He brought hang gliders to soar off and sports cars to race up his mountain, you know, the one they call Grandfather, and each summer there was the Highland Games.  There was golf from the 1951 Ryder Cup in Pinehurst, to the Azalea Open in Wilmington, to a 1959 PGA event in Greensboro—all were Morton photo favorites.  Then beginning in 1963 he became a fixture at the induction ceremonies for the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.  NASCAR greats Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson  and Richard Petty were photo favorites from the Hall.  The World Series, the Kentucky Derby, and NFL games are also part of his body of work.

When big name athletes—Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Clyde King, “Catfish” Hunter, Billy Joe Patton, Arnold Palmer, and Yogi Berra among others—came to Chapel Hill, or Wilmington, or Grandfather Mountain, Hugh was there . . . and there was most often a North Carolina connection.

“What distinguished me as a photographer,” Hugh Morton once said, “was that I knew how to take my pictures to the mailbox.”  Morton sent pictures to the state’s newspapers and would always relate the images to someone or something in the paper’s coverage area.

In December, 1981, Hugh Morton and writer Smith Barrier were in the middle of a book signing trip to Raleigh when Morton had an idea.  Why not stop by the Governor’s office and present him a copy of their new book, The ACC Basketball Tournament Classic? As Barrier related the story: “It was pouring rain and neither of us had a raincoat. . . . The Governor wasn’t expecting us, but we set out across town to the Capitol.  We walked in and Governor Jim Hunt came out and greeted us. I bet it was the first time ever that two guys in wet sweaters walked in unannounced and got an appointment with the Governor.”

Smith Barrier’s story says a lot about the man who was probably North Carolina’s premier promotional genius—and yes, he could take good sports pictures too.  So pick your favorites and have a look for yourself!

2 thoughts on “The View from the Best Seat in the House

  1. I’m no photographer, but I was thinking about Hugh Morton (and Don Sturkey, newspapers, cameras that use film, etc) and wondering what lies ahead for the next generation of photo archivists at the North Carolina Collection. I can’t imagine another “View to Whomever” — surely nobody could ever again embrace and dominate the state Murphy-to-Manteo as Hugh did for so many decades. But who are the (digital) shooters out there today creating distinctive legacies?

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