The beauty of snow through the eyes of Hugh MacRae Morton

Sunlight in snowy woods as seen and photographed by High Morton.

Sunlight in snowy woods as seen and photographed by High Morton.

With newspapers using gallons of ink showing headlines like “Winter Strom Wreaks Havoc Across South” . . . news and weather channels putting their casts and crews in harm’s way, going flat-out 24/7, showing, slick roads, spinning cars, and snowball fights . . . schools (including UNC’s Wilson Library today and this past weekend), churches, businesses, and daycares closed and the UNC NC State basketball game postponed . . . the cast and crew at A View to Hugh would like to show you the beautiful side of snow through the eyes and camera lens of Hugh Morton.

It’s safe to say Hugh never let a good snowfall go “unphotographed.”  Below are just a few links to some of the many snowfall photographs made by Morton.  Explore and enjoy the online collection of Morton photographs for other winter views and please leave a comment to let us know which photographs are you favorites!

Whitetail deer in snow

Mount Mitchell in the snow

Mountain snow

Road in snow and ice

Snow on Grandfather Mountain

Mile High Swinging Bridge in snow and ice

This is Living



Only experts take great photographs, and a great photograph (about as common as a great painting) is creative.  Its impact is a stinging slap to the jaded or flagging attention.  And its result will always be some deepened insight into the very nature of one aspect of this life that we are all, flower, man and beast, enjoying together on this our dusty, colorful planet home.

—Donald Culross Peattie in This is Living: A View of Nature with Photographs (1938)

June 1st, 2016 is the tenth anniversary of Hugh Morton’s passing.  During the years that we have been writing for A View to Hugh, we have primarily featured Morton’s photographs of historical events from a factual perspective because that is the mainstay of the North Carolina Collection.  Today, however, presents a marvelous opportunity to explore Morton’s nature photography—and following that link leads you to well over 700 photographs assigned that subject heading.

As you will see, certainly not every Morton photograph is great; there never has been, nor will there ever be, a photographer for whom this could be true.  And even an amateur can make a great photograph now and then.  Not every photograph, however, needs to be great.  The trillions of photographs that we have made are micro expressions of singular moments in time.  Hugh Morton was a gifted photographer who made many great photographs, many more good photographs, and many that were merely visual explorations along the way to making many good and great photographs. We are all honored that his prolific body of work is available in Wilson Library for all to utilize for our own explorations in life.  There is great benefit to all in having one person’s lifelong photographic vision available beyond his or her place in time.

The opening quotation above comes from Donald Culross Peattie’s introduction to his commentary on more than 120 nature photographs by various photographers selected by Gordon Aymar.  Most of the photographs are not great, some are far from it.  Brought together, however, Aymar’s selection and sequencing of the photographs into chapters titled “Life-Force,” “Young Beginnings,” “Home,” “Living Together,” “Hunger,” Mysterious Ways,” “Death,” and “Life the Conqueror” leads readers through many photographic observations that celebrate living.  Morton, with his ever-present camera, explored these very same categories, and more, in his nature photography.

On this tenth anniversary of Hugh Morton’s death, I invite you to explore his nature photography.  Doing so will give you the opportunity to celebrate life as Morton saw it spanning seven decades through his eyes, cameras, and lenses.  To quote Peattie once more:

It is a slender world in the cosmosphere that is set aside for us to inhabit—no more than the surface of one drifting bubble.  The limits of life as we know it are terribly strict.  Within these frail dimensions all living things are crowded, flung together in an intimacy that means struggle.  We are conscripted to that struggle by the fact of birth, delivered from it, generally against our will, by death.  This is living.

Looking back at our common future

Happy Earth Day 2015.  Hugh Morton photographed in many places around the globe, but the planet itself was not one of them . . . at least not from outer space.  Looking for an image to post for Earth Day, I searched the online collection for “earth” . . . then “globe” . . . then “global.”  The last search term led to today’s post.


Carl Sagan speaking at the 1990 Emerging Issues Forum at North Carolina State University, with North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt standing in the background. (Photograph cropped by author.)

Since 1986 the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University has held an annual Emerging Issues Forum.  Hugh Morton attended the forum in February 1990 when the theme was “Global Changes in the Environment: Our Common Future.”  According to the program published after the forum, there were approximately 1,500 attendees.  Featured speakers included Al Gore, 45th Vice President of the U.S.; Carl Sagan, former director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell University; Steve Cowper, former governor of Alaska; and Madeline Kunin, former governor of Vermont.

After searching through the Morton collection finding aid to see what other years he may have attended the forum, it appears that was the only time he went—or at least photographed, but I cannot imagine Morton attending such an event and not taking at least one photograph.  There are 68 negatives from the 1990 forum, filed in three locations in the collection with the following descriptions:

  • Roll Film Box P081/35BW-5, Envelope 2.6.270-5-1: Gore, Al at NCSU Emerging Issues Forum (with Steve Cowper, etc.), 1990, Black and white 35mm roll film negatives, 6 images;
  • Roll Film Box P081/35BW-6, Envelope 2.6.602-5-1: “Sagan, Carl, Governor Jim Hunt, North Carolina State” (Emerging Issues Forum?), 1990s, Black and white 35mm roll film negatives, 6 images; and
  • Roll Film Box P081/35BW-8, Envelope 2.8.7-5-11: Emerging Issues Forum, North Carolina State University, 8-9 February 1990, Black and white 35mm roll film negatives, 56 images.

Scans made from eight of these negatives can be seen in the online collection of Morton photographs.

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its 94th

Grand Canyon, by Hugh Morton

Hugh Morton visited the Grand Canyon in late January, 1987.

Today marks the 94th anniversary of the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park.  A week ago, coincidentally, marked what would have been Hugh Morton’s 92nd birthday.

Morton visited the Grand Canyon in late January 1987, based upon the dates of “01-26-1987” and “01-30-1987” printed with a matrix dot printer on the plastic mounts of two rolls of 35mm slides.

Or did he?

Let’s use this scenic photograph, and the little we know about it, as an exercise in a way to use the Morton finding aid—with an added caveat on how to use calendar dates provided in the finding aid as starting points that need confirmation rather than exactitudes.

Searching the Morton collection inventory for “January 1987” using a Web browser’s “Find” function reveals several matches.  Cutting and pasting the subjects into a new list ordered by date gives us a glimpse into Morton’s photographic activities for that month:

  • “Grand Canyon,” January 1987 (35mm slides, no exact dates)
  • “UNC-Maryland,” (UNC-Jacksonville University basketball), January 1987 (35mm color slides; no exact dates)
  • “Bulls-Celtics” (Mascot, cheerleaders. Jordan, Bird), January 1987 (35mm slides)
  • Gary Everhardt, George Olson, Roy Taylor and Cotton Robinson: “Western North Carolina Tomorrow,” 12 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)

  • “Good Snow, Doc Watson,” (sunset, people in creek), 14 January 1987 (35mm color slides)
  • Gorilla, 15 January 1987 (35mm slides)
  • “Dean Smith” (Press conference), 15 January 1987 (35mm slides)
  • Kuralt, Charles “North Carolina is My Home”: Chapel Hill, 23 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)

  • Michael Jordan, Chicago, 27 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)

  • “UNC-Clemson, Clemson, Kenny Smith scores 41,” 28 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)

  • “Mildred in Snow,” 29 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)

The lines above, extracted from the topically arranged finding aid, form a chronological list.  Looking closely, you can see that Hugh Morton would not likely have been at the Grand Canyon on the 26th and the 30th if he was in Chicago on the 27th . . . and Mildred the Bear probably didn’t take a trip to Arizona!  Also, with a bit of checking you find that the basketball game between UNC and Jacksonville was played on December 13th—a month earlier!  What’s going on here?

For those readers who have only photographed with digital cameras, the following may seem a bit strange, but it is true.  Unlike your camera’s EXIF data that records the exact time—to the second—that you make an exposure in camera, the date provided on a 35mm slide mount records the date the photography lab processed the film.  So what is going on in line two of the list?  I haven’t gone to the slides to verify this, but Morton likely didn’t finish shooting an entire roll of film at the UNC–Jacksonville game, so he finished the roll during the game against Maryland on January 8th.

Not all slide mounts have dates, but there may have been a postmark on the box indicating when it left the lab.  Dates provided for negatives, on the other hand, are mostly those that Hugh Morton wrote on negative sleeves and envelopes; some, however, were determined by staff who either discovered or easily obtained dates for events.  A good take away from this exercise is to be sure you understand what the dates represent, and verify them if it is important to your research or project.

Understanding what machine printed dates represent is good information to keep in mind if you are looking at old family photographs and see dates that don’t make sense on snapshot borders or the backs of prints.  A family group portrait made with everyone standing next to a snowman at Uncle Charlie’s birthday in January that has a “July 1956” date stamped on the photograph may mean that Aunt Esther didn’t take the camera out of the hall closet for several months.

The above list of Morton’s January 1987 subjects presents a revealing insight to the range and depth of Hugh Morton’s photographic career in microcosm.  That’s an pretty impressive cast of characters and locations for one month—figuratively as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon.

You may have discerned in the list that there are some other date conflicts, incomplete dates, or things that make you go “Hmmmmm.”  If the spirit moves you, have fun trying to clarify them, then leave a comment with your conclusions.  You might even be able to find out when Morton went to the Grand Canyon.  If anyone recognizes Morton’s exactly location when he made the photograph, we might even be able to use shadow casting to date the image.  That would make for another interesting post.

Now if we only knew why Hugh Morton went to the Grand Canyon . . . .


Winter Solstice


Winter scene near Grandfather Mountain

Winter scene near Grandfather Mountain, Linville, NC, with a dog and Julia Morton (right) and Catherine Morton (left) dragging sled next to a snow-covered road.

Winter solstice is upon those of us in the Northern Hemisphere—and today’s simple post features a bright and cheery photograph on this day with the least amount of daylight for the year.

New River Celebration Day

Horseshoe bend in the New River, looking south. Alleghany and Ashe Counties, North Carolina.

This coming Saturday, July 23rd 2011, will be New River Celebration Day at the New River State Park located near Laurel Springs in Ashe and Allegheny counties of North Carolina.  What’s to celebrate? The river itself—the second oldest in the world—whose very nature survived a decade-long threat in the 1960s and 1970s.

The north and south forks of the New River wend their northerly way through northwestern North Carolina, meeting at their confluence to form the river’s main stem near the Virginia border.  The region had been traditionally rural farmlands, but on March 11, 1963 the Appalachian Power Company (APCO), a subsidiary the American Electric Power Company (the largest electric utility in the country) received permission from the Federal Power Commission to conduct a two-year feasibility study for the potential generation of hydroelectric power on the upper New River.

As a result, on February 27, 1965 APCO filed an application for its “Blue Ridge Project”—a proposal for a non-federal hydroelectric power project to construct two dams on the New River in Grayson County, Virginia with the upper dam’s reservoir extending into North Carolina. The reservoirs would have a combined surface area of more than 19,000 acres. In 1966, however, the Department of interior proposed a larger project that would help flush pollution from the Kanawha River farther downstream, which eventually became known as the Modified Blue Ridge Project. That plan called for more than 38,000 to 42,000 surface acres, requiring the displacement of least 2,700 inhabitants in nearly 900 dwellings, plus numerous industries, churches, cemeteries, and other structures.  And the power generated by the project was not for local resources but for distant customers.

In protest, citizens mounted a preservation effort that was soon joined by both the state and federal governments. The New River was not alone, however, in its plight.  The nation was undergoing a revitalized environmentalism movement in the 1960s, and the condition of America’s rivers emerged as a major concern. On October 2, 1968, the United States Congress enacted the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which specified three river segments within the country that qualified for protection, including a 26.5-mile stretch of the New River from its confluence with Dog Creek to the Virginia border.  With passage of this law, protected rivers could become part of a National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and the law offered two paths to achieve that protection.

The battle for the New River that followed was long and complex.  What is interesting from the Hugh Morton perspective is that the early stages of the preservation effort were in play when Morton briefly campaigned as a candidate for governor the Democratic Party in late 1971 and early 1972.  The headwaters of South Fork of the New River start from a spring at Blowing Rock in Watauga County, which as the crow flies is not far from Grandfather Mountain in Avery County.  Research into Morton’s campaign might reveal if he ever spoke publicly about the subject.

The following few years saw the first statewide effort to fight for the New River, including the Committee for the New River in January 1975. The National Committee for the New River organized in 1974. (A NCNR map of the project illustrates the area that would have been effected by the project.)  On May 26th, 1975 the North Carolina General Assembly designated that same 26.5 mile stretch of the New River included in the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as a State Scenic River.  Morton’s photograph above dates from May 1975, one of several he took that month.  In 1976 the New River obtained its status as a National Scenic River, and the New River State Park opened in 1977.

You can read more about the efforts to protect the New River in

Morton and camera returned to the New River once again on July 30th, 1998 to photograph the ceremony designating the New River as an American Heritage River, an event attended by both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Clinton created the American Heritage Rivers Initiative by executive order on September 11, 1997.

President Bill Clinton speaking at event celebrating the designation of the New River as an American Heritage River, Ashe County, N. C., Juy 30, 1998.

‘Ghost Cat’ confirmed as ghost

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed that the Eastern Cougar (a.k.a. puma, mountain lion, catamount, red tiger, or “ghost cat”) is officially extinct — i.e., there have been no wild breeding populations of the species since, probably, the 1930s. Officials blame continuing, numerous mountain lion sightings in the eastern states on mistaken identity (either another animal entirely or a migrating Western Cougar), or on big cats escaped from captivity — though they may have trouble convincing many locals of that!

This sad news does provide an opportunity to highlight some of Hugh Morton’s striking photos of cougars in the wildlife habitats at Grandfather Mountain.

I’m not entirely sure when the first cougars came to Grandfather (circa late 1970s-early 1980s), or of the impetus for creating a habitat for them — perhaps some of the staff at Grandfather can shed light on that story? But I believe the image below to be one of those inaugural cougars, named Terra and Rajah, possibly upon arrival at the Mountain (judging from the ropes and the unhappy attitude). (Of these two, only Terra, shown in the photo at the top of this post, was an Eastern Cougar — Rajah was Western).

Mr. Morton was obviously taken with the animal’s extreme elegance and athleticism. He tried repeatedly to capture that perfect “cougar leap” image. I’m particularly fond of the shot below (taken in 1982 of the cougar named Judy).

Two cougars, Nakita and Aspen, currently live at Grandfather (though the website doesn’t say whether either or both of them are Eastern Cougars). At least, through captivity programs like Grandfather’s, we can take comfort that not all of these incredible animals will become “ghosts.”

Autumn Gallery

I’m headed up the mountain to Boone this weekend, hoping to catch what’s left of the colorful fall leaves. Here in Chapel Hill, they’re just getting started.

Hugh Morton, of course, had a marvelous eye for capturing fall displays; here for your enjoyment are a few showstoppers as well as some of my personal favorites.

A Man and his Mountain; Worth 1,000 Words concludes

It is with both sadness and relief that I announce the final installation of our Worth 1,000 Words essay project . . . sadness because I’ve so enjoyed each new essay and the varying perspectives our authors have brought to the Morton collection, and relief because, wow, this has been a lot of work! (I have a whole new respect for editors/publishers).

But perhaps the sun hasn’t gone down for the last time on this project. All along, our intention with these essays has been to demonstrate the usefulness of Hugh Morton’s images beyond their obvious value as “pretty pictures.” As we stated in our original grant proposal to the North Carolina Humanities Council:

“Photographs are rich primary sources in themselves, full of historical detail, and as visual records, offer immediacy not available through text — a direct visual link to the past. Photography is also, of course, an art, one of which Hugh Morton was a master. The beautiful and communicative documents he created hold almost endless possibility for study, research, and exhibition. They also contain great potential for educational use at all levels, from grade school to graduate school.”

We heartily encourage researchers, journalists, students, teachers, history buffs, etc. to take up the mantle of our Worth 1,000 Words authors and continue to put Morton’s photos to work in the creation of new knowledge. We hope to find ways to encourage that in the future, e.g., through collaborations with media outlets and educators (here on UNC campus and/or in the public schools). We’d love to hear your ideas on ways to accomplish this.

And now to the final essay, entitled The Grandfather Backcountry: A Bridge Between the Past and Preservation, written by RANDY JOHNSON, the originator of Grandfather Mountain’s trail system. In this essay, Johnson provides his first-hand, behind-the-scenes perspective on the changing attitudes towards managing and providing public access to Grandfather’s backcountry. Combining Johnson’s piece with four of our other essays, by Drew Swanson, Anne Whisnant, Richard Starnes, and Alan Weakley, provides a fascinating, nuanced analysis (from multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives) of the complex balancing act between profit and conservation at “Carolina’s Top Scenic Attraction.”

I’ll conclude with a final plug for our second (and last) Worth 1,000 Words event in Boone on Tuesday, August 10, which will feature both Johnson and Starnes. Come on out!

Tuesday, Aug. 10, 5:30 p.m.
Watauga County Library, Boone
Information: Evelyn Johnson,, (828) 264-8784