N.C. lens legend still a strong force

? Hugh Morton isn’t ignoring the passage of time. He’s slowing it down, one memorable snapshot at a time.

At age 82, Morton doesn’t get around as much as he used to. But he’s still got The Eye.

He hasn’t lost that creative instinct in more than six decades of photographing North Carolina’s most famous personalities and politicians, its landscapes and wildlife — the everyday sights that crept into his camera lens and often emerged as some of the state’s most enduring images.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Morton’s word count is well into the millions. He can’t say how many photos he’s taken since he first picked up a camera at a summer camp near Linville in 1934.

He can’t choose a favorite. Like a father of many children, he feels each one is special.

The result is “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina,” a book published this past fall that brings his love for the state into sharp focus.

Many of the images feature the spectacular red, orange and yellow leaves that mark the changing seasons in the mountains. Others are rare, such as the Charlotte skyline from Grandfather Mountain 87 miles away — visible only after a December cold front cleared the air pollution Morton has railed against for years.

They represent moments in time when extraordinary people were caught doing ordinary things, like baseball greats Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle during fishing trips. Or, Gov. Luther Hodges after he was snagged in the cheek with a fish hook.

There are snapshots of uncommon agility (University of North Carolina basketball stars Michael Jordan and Vince Carter gliding through the air for slam dunks) and spontaneous revelry, as the one of football star Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice being carried off the Kenan Stadium field by teammates after the Tar Heels beat Duke in 1948.

A whitetail deer strikes a majestic pose at a pond at North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain in this image by photographer Hugh Morton.

“I can express myself through pictures a lot better than if I tried to write a speech about something,” Morton said.

William Friday, former president of the University of North Carolina, helped Morton cull the photos for the book. “Looking at his photographs, it is clear that all of nature’s beauties, from the mountains to the sea, have had his personal attention,” Friday writes in the foreword.

“This man has been photographing this state for over 60 years,” said Johanna Grimes, sales manager for UNC Press, which released the book. “And that’s an extraordinary thing for any state to have one person who’s done this with such affection and talent.”

Some photos came about by accident. Morton was photographing a whitetail deer drinking from a pond on an autumn day. The shot would have been ordinary, he concedes, until someone slammed a car door in a nearby parking lot, causing the deer to look up and strike a majestic pose.

Born in Wilmington, Morton spent summers in the North Carolina mountains for years, cementing his appreciation of the landscape. He now lives with his wife of nearly 58 years, Julia, in a house off a Grandfather Mountain lake.

Julia Morton said her husband still gets several rolls of film developed every few days. And he still finds a thrill in working from his office on the mountain.

“That’s just the only Hugh Morton I know,” she said.

Morton has no plans to retire, joking that he’ll keep shooting pictures until his wife “takes me to the funeral parlor, I guess.”

He’s on a book-signing tour that runs through March. A camera will be at his side.

“Always,” he said.