He toiled in the craft of news photography when it was an ancient mechanical puzzle – an artistry of light and shadow, of film and focus, of subject and composition, all juggled in the fraction of a second it took his camera to go click.
Jeep Hunter, who died Wednesday at 91, was an unlikely alchemist in the art, an aw-shucks fellow whose superpower was a vision so keen that all of Charlotte came to see itself through his pictures. He was a humble man who could freeze time.
For 41 years, he bagged dramatic images of things that caught his eye. They appeared above the coolest photo credit in the nation, maybe the world: Photo by Jeep Hunter.
Few of his friends ever knew his real name was Lawrence G. Hunter. He was simply “Jeep,” a nickname acquired in childhood because he was small and reminded people of the character Eugene the Jeep from the Popeye cartoons.
He wanted to be a Navy photographer in World War II, but wound up working stateside as a dental technician. He once cleaned the teeth of a catcher for the old Boston Braves named Yogi Berra.
After joining the Charlotte News in 1948, he covered almost every major story in his native city until he retired in 1989 – including two airline disasters, the PTL scandal and a hurricane named Hugo.
A runaway elephant
He covered the visits of six presidents – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan – and one pharaoh’s treasure, that of Ramesses II. None of that, though, beat the story of Vicky the elephant, who got fed up with the carnival life in 1954 and ran away into the thickets near Charlotte Douglas Airport.
For a week, she played hide-and-seek with a safari party of cops, carnies and News photographer Jeep Hunter. Vicky finally surrendered to a troop of Boy Scouts. Jeep’s shutter went click.
He was known as a member of the dream team of Charlotte photographers from that era – a Rat Pack of shutterbugs – that also included Don Sturkey, Tom Franklin, Elmer Horton, Don Hunter (no relation) and Don Martin. They grew up shooting with balky Speed Graphic cameras, flashbulbs a-popping, and transitioned into the sleek equipment of the 35 mm generation.
“What set him apart from the rest of us was that he could handle people better,” said Sturkey, 85, who shot for the rival Observer and admired Hunter’s work for the News. “He was such an outgoing guy – he’d introduce himself to strangers and get into conversation with them right off and get whatever he needed.”
Once a group of Mennonite and Amish came to chop wood after Hurricane Hugo. They asked that out of respect, Hunter not photograph their faces.
He waited until they boarded a Red Cross van. Then his shutter went click – frozen in time were the silhouettes of bearded men in broad-brimmed hats.
One of Hunter’s colleagues was a young reporter named Charles Kuralt, who began his career at the News and later went on to CBS.
“One of the best things about my days there was working with Jeep and watching Jeep work, capturing moments,” Kuralt said during a 1983 retrospective of Jeep’s photography in Charlotte.
“He did it so easily and unobtrusively – as if he weren’t there at all,” Kuralt said. “That was a lesson to me: Stay out of the story. Just let the thing happen. But when it happens, don’t miss it. Because Jeep Hunter never misses.”
Hunter’s favorite subjects filled, then overflowed, a file cabinet in his house: pictures of his three children growing up, augmented in later years by photos of four grandchildren and then three great-grands. He was taking pictures as late as Saturday, his daughter Leslie Brown said.
Hunter died at Duke Medical Center in Durham after a short illness. Brown said he was laughing and telling stories with the nursing staff up until the end.