On February 19, 2017, Hugh Morton would have turned 96 years old. And with this post, Hugh Morton collection volunteer and contributor Jack Hilliard is celebrating a personal “View to Hugh” milestone.
. . . you could not contain him [Hugh Morton]. . . There was never any negativism. He was creative, forward thinking. . . As a promoter, he was North Carolina’s best. His first love outside Grandfather Mountain was this place [UNC]. He loved this place with a passion.
Dr. William Friday, Windows (Fall 2007)
On February 19, 1921, 96 years ago today, Hugh MacRae Morton was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. Morton’s first published photograph appeared in Time when he was fourteen, and over the next seventy-plus years, he took well over two hundred thousand pictures of life in “his” North Carolina and beyond.
During World War II Morton was attached to the 37th Infantry Division where he was a newsreel cameraman and photographed the South Pacific Theater, including an occasion to photograph General Douglas MacArthur at Binalonan and San Manuel on Luzon Island in the Philippines. While on the island of Luzon, Morton was injured by a Japanese explosive. He was later awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Upon his return from the war, Morton picked up where he left off, taking pictures across his native state. His work has been featured in hundreds of publications including Life, National Geographic, Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, and Collier’s. Two magnificent books of his photographs have been published, so far…one in 2003 titled Hugh Morton’s North Carolina and a second one titled Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer, published soon after his death on June 1, 2006.
It was at his memorial service at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro on June 9, 2006 that I learned from Dr. William Friday that Morton’s photographic archive was going to be donated to the University of North Carolina and was to become a part of the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library on the UNC campus. My first thought was that the Library would most likely just store the boxes of photographs, negatives, and slides in a safe place. And that was a comforting feeling, knowing that the images would indeed be safe.
Then, in early fall of 2007, I received my copy of Windows, a UNC library publication published by the Friends of the Library. The lead, front-cover-story was about the Hugh Morton photography archive coming to the North Carolina Collection. The magazine called the estimated 530,000-item-collection a stunner and North Carolina Collection Curator Bob Anthony said it was the largest collection ever given to the library (to date).
The amazing article also indicated that the photographs would be cataloged, identified, and filed for easy use. North Carolina Collection archivist Stephen Fletcher along with his assistant Elizabeth Hull would lead a team of students and volunteers in doing the work. A sidebar article called “Processing the Morton Collection (Wrestling the Bear)” told of the challenges the team faced, since many of the photographs did not contain identifying captions. (Elizabeth wrote a blog post on the subject on November 7, 2007 titled “A Processor’s Perspective.”)
As I read through the article, I thought, “What a great job, going to work each day and your duties included looking at Hugh Morton photographs.” So I wrote Stephen and Elizabeth an email on December 12, 2007 and offered to help identify some of the football pictures since I have been a UNC fan since the age of 6. I received a reply that said the team had not gotten to the identifying point yet, but I might be able to help later. The article also mentioned the “processing blog” that offered readers an opportunity to comment. I immediately logged in and read each entry and comment starting with Fletcher’s first entry on November 1, 2007. Then on January 21, 2008 I added my first comment. I have continued to add comments when I thought I could offer something of interest.
When the 2008 football season started, I suggested a blog topic. Since Carolina was playing Notre Dame in Chapel Hill on October 11th, why not look back to the first meeting between the two teams in November of 1949. Morton’s pictures from that day are classic. Stephen accepted the idea and wrote two really good posts about the game: “The Tar Heels against the Fighting Irish in the Big Apple” and “Justice’s Prayer.”
When the processing team got to the point where they could begin identifying UNC football photographs, I received an email on October 8, 2008, asking if I would like to become a volunteer. Of course my answer was yes and I began to make weekly Friday visits to the collection starting on October 31, 2008. Each Friday there would be a group of negatives for me to try to identify. There was something exciting about holding the very negative that had been used to print a newspaper picture that, as a little kid, I had clipped out of the paper and pasted in a scrapbook. I continued those Friday visits until August 17, 2010, and I still make periodic visits to the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.
As the football season progressed, it looked like the 2008 Tar Heel team would be going to a bowl game, so I made a second suggestion: Why not do a piece on Carolina’s first bowl game played in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1947? Elizabeth liked the idea and added, “Why don’t you write it?” I was surprised, but agreed to do it, but only if Stephen and Elizabeth would carefully review and edit it. So on December 22, 2008 my first piece for “V2H” was posted . . . surprisingly enough with very little editing. At the time I made the suggestion, I thought that Morton photographed that game, but it turned out that weather conditions prevented him from getting there. Four years later, a post on December 28, 2012 revealed the “Morton mystery” surrounding the ’47 Sugar Bowl.
In early 2009, Elizabeth suggested that I do a piece on Morton’s run for governor. I did that piece, which was posted on March 24, 2009. By now I was really hooked and I started to look for ideas to write about—and surprisingly I found some. So, on this special day, the day Hugh Morton would have turned 96, this post is the 100th for me. With special thanks to Bob Anthony, Stephen Fletcher, and Elizabeth Hull . . . it has been a fun ride. I hope it can continue. It is indeed a genuine privilege and honor to help celebrate Hugh Morton’s magnificent photographic work.