A Magician’s Secrets Revealed!

Note from Elizabeth: Last Friday was Amber’s last day at work on the Morton project. We’d like to thank her immensely for her dogged, patient, and insanely organized work sorting through the slides, and her charming blog posts. We wish her all the best with the rest of her education!

I’ve learned a lot over the last ten months working on this collection. I’ve learned about archival procedure, making many mistakes along the way (the method for organizing the slides changed probably four or five times before I found one that worked). I have found homes for hundreds of “orphan” slides, and processed more than 72,000 slides in total. I’ve also been able to travel to amazing places: Grandfather Mountain, the Fern Grottoes of Hawaii, the McNeil River in Alaska, Galilee at Sunrise, Puerto Rican beaches, and Milford Sound in New Zealand.

I’ve probably learned the most, though, about photography. Hugh Morton was an artist, crafting amazing pictures out of everyday objects. On my two visits to Grandfather Mountain, everyone shared with me tips and tricks Hugh had taught them for taking great pictures. Now, I don’t feel I am betraying any of these secrets, because Hugh took all of the following pictures to document his process.

When I saw the Linn Cove Viaduct, I thought it was a pretty scene. But it lacked something that Hugh was able to capture. (Elizabeth touched on this in a previous post about her visit to the Mountain). I heard from two different people at Grandfather how Hugh would have helpers bring potted plants or hold branches of fall leaves to frame that perfect shot. Below, we can see how he positioned a rhododendron stem just out of frame to create the resulting beautiful picture above.

I also found slides of how he captured his amazing hummingbird pictures. I always wondered how he was in the right place at the right moment to capture that hummingbird going to that flower. Turns out it wasn’t always serendipity! The shot below shows how he set everything up on his deck at home. He would lure the hummingbirds in with a feeder, then add the bottle holding the flower. The feeder would be removed, leaving only the thistle blossom. (His camera was inside pointed out the sliding glass doors so that he wouldn’t scare the little darlings away). He could then snap as many shots as possible without having to wait all day for the right moment.

Some of my favorite shots of the bears were from when they had climbed to the top of the rock in their habitat or on a cliff by the Swinging Bridge. I thought they had done that on their own, maybe to enjoy the majestic view. Nope. Hugh would have a helper lay a trail of peanut butter up the rock for the bear to follow. Often, there would be someone just out of sight luring the bear with more treats. If you look at those pictures now, you can see that the bears are usually peering over the ledge at something.

On my last trip to the Mountain, I had to laugh when I saw a Morton postcard showing a beautiful red fox running through the snow. It was faked! I’ve seen pictures of that same fox, in that same pose, in many different settings — there’s even one of it chasing a taxidermied rabbit! And Julia Morton also shared with us that Hugh carried around moose antlers in Alaska to add scenic perspective.

So, to be a scenic photographer of Hugh’s caliber, I need helpers to stage the scene with potted plants and tree branches. I need some sort of treat to entice the models in my pictures (whether man or beast). And I need a stuffed fox. Oh, and some moose antlers.

I’m going to need a bigger camera bag.

Mother’s Day Montage

When we were little, Mom was always there with a cuddle, piece of advice, or milk and cookies. Sometimes Mom was more annoying and embarrassing than helpful. She was always trying to get that stray hair back in place or the smudges off our cheeks.

Mom taught us manners and how to be polite. Little things like chewing with your mouth closed and sharing with your brother. And even if we didn’t then, we do chew with our mouths closed now.

Mom taught us to be inquisitive explorers. Everything was a new toy to play with. We would take things apart to find out exactly how they worked. Sometimes we got in trouble because we couldn’t put them back together or played with stuff we weren’t supposed to. But, Mom still loved us.

Bath time was always an adventure! It was usually a fight to get us in the tub. There was always something better to do, and our dirt was a symbol of our adventures. But once we were in, it was sometimes a struggle to get us out. Mom probably got cleaner than we did.

We can look back now and laugh at those stressful events. Like the time we were trying to get that family portrait. Mom kept yelling at us because we were making funny faces and playing rather than looking our best. There was never a picture that caught all of our good sides.

We’ve been through a lot and come out stronger than before. Nothing could come between us, even those awkward teenage years with crazy hairstyles and weird fashions. Some of those looks only a mother could love.

Mom has always been there through everything: the good, bad, sad, and disgusting. So thank you, Mom, for all that you do. You are the most important figure in our world, and we love you more than anything else.

The Wilds of Alaska

Back when I was working on the Morton slides from 1975, I sorted over 350 he took on a trip to Alaska. This was the most daunting and stressful sets of slides I have yet to organize — it appeared that they were thrown into the air and then put back into the boxes however they were picked up. I had all those slides spread out on a big light table for over a week, and there are still quite a few 1975 Alaska “orphans.”

There were some nice scenic shots of Denali and glaciers, but mostly what I remember are endless miles of pipeline (related to Williams Brothers operations, led by Morton’s good friend John Williams, pictured below).

Recently, I came to a batch slides from October 1986 and July 1987 labeled Alaska, and I immediately got a headache. Memories of the pipeline made me think of quitting. It didn’t help when I tried to determine if Morton had photographed caribou or reindeer (for those of you who don’t know, they are the same thing).

Luckily, most of this batch has been better organized and labeled. They appear to be pictures from a trip Hugh took with wildlife artist Richard Evans Younger (top photo), the subject of a series of Morton films. We’re not certain who the cameraman is (see picture below), any ideas? There are film reels from the trip downstairs in storage, still to be cataloged; some of these are labeled “McNeil River Bears” and “Wildlife Artist: Younger Alaska.”

I think Morton must have gotten a bit spoiled by his ability to cuddle and wrestle the bears at Grandfather Mountain. I don’t think the bears in the wilds of Alaska are going to react the same as Mildred, Jane, or Punkin. But this didn’t seem to stop him from getting some amazing pictures of grizzlies at McNeil Falls.

McNeil River State Game Refuge and Sanctuary becomes quite populated in July and August–with bears, not tourists. Every year these bears migrate to the falls to stuff themselves with dog salmon. There are no roads to the sanctuary and visitors must apply months in advance for a chance in the lottery. Only about 250 people get to see this spectacle each year, with a limit of ten at a time. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, up to 72 bears have been seen here at one time. I count 14 in the picture below!

Morton was a well-traveled man. I’ve shared with you the splendors of Hawaii and Alaska. Maybe before my assistanship is finished I’ll show you Arizona, California, or Florida. Or perhaps China, Japan, the Holy Land, New Zealand and Australia, Italy, or Austria? Let me know where you would like to travel next. Cozumel is beautiful this time of year.

A Snapshot, or Art?

This semester I decided to take a Digital Photography class, both for my own enjoyment and to help me better understand Hugh Morton’s photos. The class has been very beneficial in teaching me about aperture, shutter speed, and film sensitivity. I’m now able to look at a Morton picture and say “Oh, that’s how he did that!” (Well, sometimes). For example, the three pictures below show the same full moon rising over the same mountain at different exposures.

Three exposures of full moon over rocky mountain face, circa 1980s-1990sBut, which one did Hugh prefer? Did he want the darker picture that reflected more of the natural setting or did he like the lighter picture that showed more details? These are just a few of the questions that have arisen from taking this class.

For my first assignment I went to Grandfather Mountain to re-capture some of Morton’s photographs. Of course, mine came nowhere close to his. However, my photographs did start a debate in our class about whether a photograph can be a piece of art or just a pretty picture. Personally, I look at a photo and think, “Would I buy that to put on my wall?” (My professor didn’t have quite the same opinion).

Spider with trillium, circa 1980s-1990s

When you look at a photo, are you going to give it much thought? Will you look at it a second time? Does the image make you question what is being captured? For example, the picture of the trillium above is a pretty picture. The first time I looked at, that’s what I saw — I might not have given it a second look. But I did, and that’s when I noticed the spider sneaking around on the leaf, how its coloring blended in with the petals, and how its body mirrored the stigma (center) of the flower. Does that mean that this would be considered art?

Two sunrise/sunset images, circa 1980s-1990s

The two sunrise (or sunset) pictures above are definitely thought-provoking. One is very ethereal — light, airy, and promising. The other is more foreboding, dark, and sinister. Side by side, they are definitely striking and provoke contrasting images of good and evil. But if they weren’t next to each other, I don’t know if I would have looked twice. Does that make one a snapshot and the other art? Are they both just pretty pictures?

Waterfall, tree with red fungus in foreground, circa 1980s-1990s

And here’s another thought regarding the art debate. If I told you that I took the above picture, and not Hugh Morton, does that make it less artistic? What if Ansel Adams had taken this picture? This debate could probably go on for quite a while. Everyone has their own definition of what makes a photograph a piece of art. I think the picture above is art — I would gladly put it on the wall of my living room. Others will look at it and just see a pretty snapshot. What do you think?

Wish You Were Here!

Postcards are an integral part of any vacation. Whether amid the urban sprawl of Charlotte or the peace and quiet of Sunset Beach, you will always find those spinning turnstiles advertising postcards, 10 for a dollar.  Grandfather Mountain is by no means immune to this phenomenon.

Grandfather Mountain postcard, circa 1990s

In our massive collection of images are quite a few postcards photographed, and often published, by Hugh Morton. Some of these postcards can be seen in the North Carolina Postcards collection online: 14 postcards for which Hugh provided the images can be found in the digital collection. Of the 7 Grandfather Mountain images, 4 are Hugh’s (of the Highland Games and pipe bands on the cliffs. Stephen found this collection quite useful about a year ago in helping to identify a specific pipe band).

Hugh Morton postcard, circa 1950s (subjects unidentified)

Most of the postcards donated with the collection are typical scenic views, cuddly bear cubs, or bubbly creeks and waterfalls — ones you might buy from Grandfather Mountain’s gift shop, including familiar images such as this one, this one, and this one. And then you have the one above, a crazy picture with no accompanying description, raising the questions: who are these men, and why would I want a postcard of them?

Grandfather Mountain postcard, circa 1960s
Some of the postcards are actually quite useful. Many times the descriptions on the back will help us to identify a location, date, or person. The description from the postcard above explains that this is Darby Hinton and Mildred the Bear at the Mile High Swinging Bridge. Darby played Daniel Boone’s son, Israel, from the television series running from 1964-1970. As we were looking for postcards for this blog, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Hey, I’ve seen this kid.”  She had run across pictures of him, but hadn’t yet connected them with a name.

The pictures Hugh Morton took for his postcards were used for more than just souvenirs. Grammy Award-winning banjo man David Holt used a Morton postcard to promote himself. Hugh used a postcard of the USS North Carolina to send out his change of address from Wilmington to Linville. It’s nice to see that the photos he took showed the beauty of the surrounding areas and didn’t stoop to the cheesy tourist gimmicks of bathing beauties or ski bunnies.

Hugh Morton photo postcard, circa late 1940s-early 1950s

Or did they?

Aloha Kalikimaka

Beach with lighthouse, Hawaii, 1978

After making it through a rather blustery November, I’m reminded of when I boldly decided to escape the cold Sierra Nevada Mountains and relax on the black sand beaches of Hawaii. The Mortons had the same brilliant idea over Christmas 1978, when they took a trip to the islands of Oahu and Kauai. There are stunning pictures of double rainbows over a misty Honolulu, the USS Arizona Memorial, and surfing crystal turquoise waters.

While in Hawaii, Morton visited the grave of Ernest Taylor Pyle at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Ernie Pyle was a journalist in both world wars, stationed in the Pacific Theater during WWII.  I’m guessing that their paths must have crossed during that time? I haven’t been able to find a connection, but if anyone can confirm this it would be appreciated.

Fern Grotto, Wailua River State Park, Hawaii, 1978
The photo above I found floating loose at the bottom of a box, one of the many orphans I have had to match to its roll. Once I found the Hawaii batch, I was able to easily recognize where it belonged. It shows the Fern Grotto in Wailua River State Park on Kauai — this is a large lava cave that ferns took over, growing on every surface. I’m not certain if Hugh had pulled this from the rest of the roll for a presentation, or because he felt it wasn’t up to par. (His “rejects” usually look pretty great to me).

Hang gliding, Hawaii, 1978

In the late 70s and early 80s, Hugh took numerous photos of hang gliding, mostly at Grandfather (the home of the National Hang Gliding Championship for a few years).  The comments we received on a previous post tell the exciting story behind one of the hang gliding photos from Hawaii, which shows Morton himself taking flight! The image above was one that was able to capture the beautiful waters, and the contrast between the white sands and dark coral reefs.

Maybe it’s the temps in the 20s forecast for Chapel Hill, or the thought of a Mai Tai, but Hawaii is definitely calling for me to visit again soon.  Right, Elizabeth?

Editorial Note from Elizabeth: I thought it was pretty funny when Amber said she wanted to write this post, because I am actually off to Hawaii myself next week! I’ll be doing, um, highly serious and intensive Morton-related research. No relaxing whatsoever. (Do you think the IRS will buy that?)

Drowning in a Sea of Slides

Shipwreck, North Carolina coast, 1950s

Recently, I have started going through the piles of 35mm slides we have in storage.  It is quite a process (however, these have been a little easier than the machine prints).  Over three weeks I was able to process all 7,894 slides from the 1960s.  I shouldn’t say all, though, because I’m sure we will find a random box someplace with more slides in it!

I quickly found that in organizing mounted slides, there is more information available to you than just the content of the image itself. Most slides since 1960 have a date (month and year) and a frame number stamped on the mount. Most also have an indicator of film type (e.g. Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Kodachrome II), and some have a letter-number code (W9, A5, A6, A1, R2, H3 etc. — if anyone know what these codes mean, please let me know!). Plus, the date stamps and film type names were printed in various colors (usually red or black). I can use all of these clues to help reassemble sets/rolls that were broken up for one reason or another.

Morton collection slides

In the beginning phases, I changed my strategy often. (Stephen had already sorted the slides by year shortly after they arrived, making my job considerably easier). Each box usually had a few slides that did not belong with the rest, and there were often big gaps in numbering. I started listing in a spreadsheet all the missing numbers from each set, noting the film type and the color of the date stamp, but by the time I started on 1965, I decided that making note of all the missing slides was not helping me. I wouldn’t trust the notes I had written and would check for the number sequence anyway.

Crabs, North Carolina coast?

Stephen also had many piles of slides he had found floating around loose that needed to be matched with their rolls. This meant looking at the loose slides on a light box and using my various labels and descriptions to find a home for each one.

I am now starting on the 1970s and am changing my strategy once again, because I have twice as many boxes of slides as I did for the 60s. Hugh must have really hit his slide stride in the 1980s — those boxes are falling off the shelves! I’m sure my strategies will change a few more times before I see the end of the sea of slides.

Let me introduce myself…

My name is Amber, and I’m the newest student assistant at work on the Morton collection. One of the projects I’m working on is with what we call the “Machine Prints.” In the 1990s-early 2000s, Hugh Morton sent many of his rolls of film to local drug and grocery stores to be developed.  He would then look through those negatives and decide which ones he wanted to make prints of.  Unfortunately that meant that many negatives were separated from the rest of their roll, and quite often, the prints in an envelope don’t have matching negatives (or any negatives at all!).

Morton did label most of the Machine Print envelopes, but those labels don’t always match the pictures.  The first envelope I opened was of a game in the Dean Dome, but in the middle was a random picture of Prince Charles.  (Apparently it was taken at the Biltmore Estate, where he came to learn more about preserving historic structures—see Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, page 127).

Elizabeth had already done a preliminary sort with general categories such as Basketball, Grandfather Mountain, and Nature, and I then tried to narrow them a little more.  The first one I tackled was basketball and was able to sort those by date.  However, many envelopes were simply labeled “NCAA ’94,” and it was up to me to figure out which teams were playing.

UNC’s Vince Carter dunks against UC Berkeley, 1997

This photo stayed with me as I was going through the many others.  I was amazed at how #15 was defying gravity.  The sheer physics of what he is doing is incomprehensible to me.  This was in a roll labeled “2/98 NC State.”  However, the visitors bench sure doesn’t look red. According to Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, this is Vince Carter and they are playing Cal Berkley (p. 199), which probably would have put it during the Nov. 22, 1997 game at the Dean Dome.  At the June “Photo ID Party,” Fred Kiger said this was Morton’s favorite sports photo he ever took.

This next picture was in an envelope labeled “Groundhog Ice Cream.”  You can see the chocolate smeared on her nose.  But, what is the back story on this?  Is this from Grandfather Mountain?  Some February 2nd tradition?  If anyone knows, please fill me in.  The curiosity is killing me.

Groundhog eating ice cream cone, circa 1990s

I am currently in the middle of going through all the Grandfather Mountain pictures.  What an amazing place.  The sweeping vistas are beautiful, and that Swinging Bridge—I don’t know if I am brave enough to cross it.  I just finished with the Fall pictures and the striking reds and yellows against green grass and bright blue sky are so perfectly captured, and the pictures of bears with different families and local celebrities are a crack-up.

Grandfather Mountain in fall with golf course in foreground, circa 1990s

This has definitely made me want to visit Grandfather soon, to see the places depicted in these pictures and try to capture them with my own camera (although I know they can never be nearly as stunning). Hey, mom and dad, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?  They have golf there!