My grandfather and his camera

By Jack Morton


My first vivid recollection of seeing my Granddad taking a photograph takes me to 1983. I was 5 years old with a runny nose on a cold Linville day, and we were perusing Grandfather Lake in my grandparents electric-powered boat. My hooded, burnt orange ski jacket wasnt providing nearly enough comfortable warmth on the blustery day, and, in typical fashion, Hugh Morton captured the moment like no other photographer can. The framed, colorful image of my hooded face and runny nose has graced a wall in their den ever since, an image that will never stray far from my memory.

My Granddad, now 82, is a remarkable man. His years as a photographer are a timeline of the unique history of North Carolina and the United States since the mid-1930s. Images from his lenses have graced a variety of covers, from LIFE Magazine in 1947 to the Rand McNally US Atlas in 2000 and a plethora of published photographs in between. His first published photo appeared in a North Carolina tourism ad in Time Magazine in 1935; he was 14 years old. He has photographed a pantheon of notable figures including MacArthur, Kennedy, Sinatra, Jordan and Clinton. He had the vision in 1952 to convert a family inheritance of rugged land into one of the Southeasts most recognizable tourist attractions, maintaining its natural beauty in an era when neon signs serve to lure the vacationing family. My Granddad is deeply loyal in his stance on environmental issues, and his determination to fight acid rain, preserve natural beauty, and move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has inspired everyone from politicians to ordinary citizens who appreciate their state and its beauty. Hugh Morton has a knack for reaching people at their innermost core with his gentle, caring ways. His beliefs, photographs and family business are all extraordinarily meaningful to different people for a variety of reasons, and seemingly everyone he knows or meets has a desire to thank him for the singular way in which he has touched their lives.

The Mountain

The Linville area and Grandfather Mountains craggy peaks have served as an escape for members of my family for 118 years, even before Grandfather Mountain opened for business in 1952. In an effort to develop a quaint mountain town, my great-great grandfather Hugh MacRae founded the Linville Improvement Company in 1889, and my relatives have been heading to the high country ever since. It was a special opportunity as a 6-year-old to take my Cub Scout troop from Greensboro to the Mountain for a weekend of camping and hiking that included a chance to play with bear cubs, a common event in our family. Being a part of the habitat with these creatures was an exciting treat and still is today. Every member of our family and numerous celebrities and public figures have crossed the threshold for the sake of a memorable photograph.

This was not the first time, however, that I had snuggled with the fuzzy youngsters. In 1983, my Granddad, always cognizant of creating the memorable and unique, thought it a notable advertising opportunity to show a youngster playing with a bear cub in television spots for Grandfather Mountain. My introduction to the viewing audience was, Do you like bears? I love bears! They have lots of bears at Grandfather Mountain! The idea was good and the commercials were very funny and memorable, but were never televised. With sound advice from others and wisdom of his own, my Granddad feared that viewers would somehow interpret the ads as a promotion for children interacting with wild animals. He didn't want to mislead anyone, even at the expense of not using an extremely creative advertising opportunity in the process. That genuine care for the public and potential visitors to Grandfather Mountain is a quality Hugh Morton exudes, a virtue that helps support his footing as one of the countrys finest travel and tourism minds. Constantly searching for the new and unparalleled, the man who conceived the Mile High Swinging Bridge 51 years ago continues to astound his family, friends, the media and public with his flexibility in accepting change and his knack for embracing modification as an opportunity to improve and advance. It may sound odd to refer to a man with one replaced knee as flexible, but my Granddad has an open mind to everything new and different, and this acceptance is unequivocally related to Grandfather Mountains success and distinction. The Mountain is a direct reflection of Hugh Morton in his truest form; preserved in its original splendor, yet adapted to change with class and integrity.

Unique Memories

Having Hugh Morton as a grandfather has resulted in some very interesting and special circumstances. After grilling hot dogs and hamburgers on the Mountain in 1994 with current Texas football coach Mack Brown and the legendary Voice of the Tar Heels Woody Durham, I was taking the short ride with them back to my grandparents house when Woody underestimated a curve (as many folks do) and wound up with one tire submerged in a nasty ditch. Hearing his distinctive voice yell back, OK, Mack and Jack, give it a good push! as Coach Brown and I leaned in on the Lincolns rear bumper, was memorable to say the least. Nothing, however, can rival the warm experiences I shared with my Granddad during my four years as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. My Dad, Hugh Morton Jr., died three weeks before my first day as a freshman in the fall of 1996, having suffered from an excruciating battle with depression. His death left everyone involved experiencing their own unique brand of coping, and I was understandably deflated and living in a foggy, distressed state of mind when I began my college career. When I joined my grandfather in November of 1996 on the sidelines at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham for the Carolina-Duke football game, it was the first time that I had ever taken photos alongside him. As he made suggestions on where I should stand and what to look for, I felt a bond developing, an incomparable adherence so unconventional in form because of his one-of-a-kind talent and willingness to share. There are plenty of grandfathers who will place their grandchildren on their knee and unearth a quarter from their corduroy trousers, but how many can share their craft in such fashion?

After my years in Chapel Hill, I spent some time in Linville trying to learn elements of the business side of Grandfather Mountain. I am not sure if Leonardo da Vinci shared his Renaissance technique with pupils, but the day my Granddad scaled the Mountain at age 79 to share his favorite photo spots was a day I will always remember. As I carried his camera bag, he slowly made his way up the Underwood Trail, stopping to show me the ideal angle for photographing the Swinging Bridge on a sunny day. We drove out to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where he revealed the location for the idyllic Blue Ridge Parkway Viaduct shot, the same one that graced the cover of the 2001 Rand McNally US Atlas. I learned some tricks of the trade that day from the man who has defined the trade in North Carolina for the last 65 years, and he just happens to be my grandfather.

When my beautiful wife Adrienne and I were married on July 26, 2003, in Dallas, Texas, my grandfather, age 82 with a replaced knee, was there taking photos alongside my uncle Jim Morton. Who needs to hire a professional when you have an iconic figure willing to brave the Texas summer heat? Standing in the front of the chapel, I realized that this man has taken photos in war, in the White House, in Michael Jordans house, in a submarine, on a boat with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams. His life has been extraordinary, and his recollections are remarkable. I heard it once said that men in the Morton family are likely born into this world holding a Nikon, and I can only hope that my photo-taking abilities in my job can hold a candle to his excellence. He is a member of a mythical generation in our nations history, a titan with his camera and a fabled storyteller. North Carolinians everywhere are grateful that my Granddad has documented our state from the mountains to coast since his first published photo 68 years ago. His lenses and film have served North Carolina in unmatched fashion, and I can only hope that he will continue to share his knowledge with me, my brother Crae and anyone else fortunate enough to learn from a living legend.

Jack Morton is Publications Coordinator at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.