The Greatest Generation has never been more superbly chronicled than by one of its own. The N.C. Museum of History, our spectacular downtown monument to all that is North Carolina, now hosts an exhibit of photographs spanning more than seven decades of the sharpest shooter of them all, the late Hugh Morton, owner of Grandfather Mountain (now a state park), one of the creators of Wilmington’s Azalea Festival, World War II veteran, a Tar Heel to his marrow.
Though born to a prominent family, Morton mirrored the experiences of most in his generation, through the Depression and war and the desire on the part of so many veterans who had survived to do something productive with their lives. Having been spared when so many who had worn the uniform were not, the vets feared few challenges. For his part, Morton had been wounded in the Philippines and also survived the hazardous duty of serving for a time as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s personal photographer. A News & Observer profile recalled that could be dangerous in battle because when the general stood, “the photographer stood, too.”
After all that, creating a nature preserve and a tourist attraction out of an undeveloped Grandfather Mountain he inherited must have seemed a formidable challenge but nothing like what’s he’d seen in the Pacific. From the day he set foot back on American soil, Morton lived a life based entirely on his loves — family, photography, UNC-Chapel Hill, the mountains, the coast, all things in Tar Heelia. He did things for his state, so many things, but cared little for grandiose recognition.
Morton was a person of pride, to be sure, but also of uncommon modesty. He was the first president of Wilmington’s Azalea Festival. You’ll see some flower photographs in this exhibit.
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He brought Highland Games to Grandfather Mountain, and captured on film time and again the rough competition of some burly Scots and others.
He began the gospel gathering “Singing on the Mountain” there, too. Once in while someone famous would visit, as did Johnny Cash. He left the mountain with a unique souvenir, having asked Morton if he could have the rather ragged flag flying in the wind atop Grandfather, and thereafter a spotlight fell on it when Cash performed his recitation, “Ragged Old Flag.” Morton made a deal: You can have my flag, if I can take your picture with it. Yes it’s on the wall at the museum.
And when some public spirited people wanted to bring the Battleship North Carolina home to Wilmington as a tourist attraction, Hugh Morton led the way with a campaign asking school children to contribute a dime in exchange for a free battleship pass. Some 700,000 of them did, and this was in the early 1960s. Yes, you’ll see a picture of that battleship.
You will see farmers harvesting in old-fashioned ways, shots of North Carolina’s outdoor dramas, ordinary people doing ordinary things, except they are not so ordinary in the eyes and through the lens of someone who viewed them with respect and affection. Hugh Morton didn’t simply photograph North Carolina. He loved it.
“The camera cannot lie” was a phrase coined in the 1860s or ’70s, but we know it was wrong. A camera can lie when a photographer does. But Hugh Morton was able to get pictures others could not, and to get close to people, some of them celebrities, who were not easy to get to know. Because his camera did not lie.
The museum exhibit is a tour via eyewitness through North Carolina’s 20th century, the perspective of one person, but one extraordinary person. Visitors will take their own favorites, their own impressions with them. But they can trust those impressions, for they are of images printed from a truthful lens.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or firstname.lastname@example.org