An eye for mountains: An Ansel Adams of the Smokies, George Masa was one of the greatest photographers of his era. So why have so many people never heard of him?
By Michael Beadle
There’s a view on the way up to Clingmans Dome, an overlook where a maze of finger-like ridges unfurl at your feet and spread across the landscape before tumbling into the Oconaluftee River Valley below. Surveying this vast, unspoiled wilderness, photographer Don McGowan likes to think George Masa once stood here taking photos nearly a century ago.
McGowan can’t help but wonder whether the views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he enjoys today are largely the result of Masa’s tireless efforts to capture the subtle beauty and awe-inspiring vistas that many take for granted.
“I think he felt a kinship with these mountains,” McGowan said of Masa. “To see through his eyes is always an inspiration to me.”
Masa, who once helped scout the course of the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina and recorded peaks and distances in the Great Smokies, earned his very own spot on the Tennessee side of the park with the naming of Masa Knob in 1961. While the self-taught, Japanese-born photographer earned a great reputation for his endurance as a hiker promoting the idea of preserving mountain land for posterity, he died in 1933 before the Great Smokies became a park. Grieving over the death of his good friend Horace Kephart, plunged into debt during the Great Depression, and suffering from influenza, Masa died in 1933 in the Buncombe County Sanatorium in Asheville. Hundreds of his photos fell into obscurity, many unidentified, lost or stored away by private collectors. Even his grave at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville (the resting place of famous writers Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry) was unmarked. Today much of Masa’s work remains largely unknown beyond the Southern Appalachian region.
But that’s about to change.
A new Ken Burns documentary called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is set to air on UNC-TV the week of Sept. 27 and features the work of George Masa and the role he played with friend and writer Horace Kephart in making the park a reality. The 12-hour, six-part film by the award-winning and famous Burns may finally give Masa’s legacy the attention he so rightfully deserves, according to Paul Bonesteel, an Asheville-based filmmaker who collaborated with Burns on the “National Parks” documentary.
Bonesteel directed a Masa documentary of his own in 2003, “The Mystery of George Masa,” that fueled a resurgence in learning more about Masa’s work and found a home on PBS stations nationwide. Thanks to the added clout from Burns, Bonesteel’s documentary on Masa will be made available to PBS stations for the next three years.
“A lot more people will be hearing the story of George Masa because of that,” Bonesteel said.
Recent magazine articles, art exhibits, lectures and historical essays have given more people a chance to get to know George Masa, though his younger years before coming to Asheville are still shrouded in mystery. Why did he leave Japan? Why did he not discuss his past with friends and close business associates? How did he die penniless and in obscurity when he once counted the Vanderbilts as clients of his photography business?
Bonesteel learned of the man dubbed “the Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains” through a biographical article written by William A. Hurt Jr. in the book May We All Remember Well: A Journey of the History & Culture of Western North Carolina, published in 1997. Intrigued by what he read, Bonesteel contacted Hurt, who said he felt like he’d only scratched the surface of this enigmatic figure. After a few years of researching Masa’s life, poring over letters and photographs from various university archives and private collections, Bonesteel found a fascinating story of a man who was leading the environmentalist charge long before the hippies of the 1960s.
“He was a curious and mysterious fellow,” Bonesteel said. “There are mysteries that we won’t ever be able to answer. And people like mysteries.”
Masa was certainly not the first to photograph the majestic peaks and scenic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, but in the early 1900s, no one had taken on such a monumental task of measuring, mapping and photographing as many of these mountains with the passion and skill as Masa.
Based on the limited information about his early years, there’s not much to tell. He was born in Japan in 1881. His birth name was Masahara Iizuka. Late 19th century Japan was in a state of social and political upheaval. The long-running shogun government system which had isolated the country from Westernized culture finally opened up, bringing a flood of European and American traders into the country.
The Japanese ban on emigration had also been lifted, and tens of thousands of Japanese left their homeland for work in America, many going to Hawaii to toil in the sugar plantations, while others relocated to California, which saw an explosion of population and business after its gold rush.
Iizuka ended up in Asheville in 1915 as part of a traveling group of Austrian students. Together, they would go on mountain hiking excursions, and Iizuka fell in love with the region. When it was time for the Austrian group to leave, Iizuka stayed behind and found work as a valet at the Grove Park Inn. Fred Seely, the manager of the Grove Park Inn who also organized Biltmore Industries, hired the young Japanese newcomer as a woodcarver.
Iizuka, like many foreign-born immigrants with hard-to-pronounce names, decided to Anglicize his name, keeping part of his original moniker. And so he became George Masa.
Masa got his start in photography by developing film for hotel guests. By the 1920s, Masa developed his own business as a photographer, taking portraits and working as a freelance photojournalist for Asheville newspapers and news services. His photography studios went through various names and partners, but he soon became well known locally as a landscape photographer, and his work found its way into magazines, newspapers and chamber of commerce brochures.
The Kephart connection
Historians are not clear exactly when Masa befriended the outdoor travel writer Horace Kephart, but the two found a mutual passion in hiking through the mountains and for creating what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. George Ellison, a writer based in Bryson City, N.C., who has researched and lectured extensively on Masa and Kephart, notes that the two had a lot in common. Both were wiry men who loved the outdoors, and the park gave them a mutual goal to save the mountains they loved so much. They hiked and camped together, and Masa’s photographs would often accompany Kephart’s articles.
“They were quite a formidable team,” Ellison said.
When Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, Masa was devastated, and before Masa died two years later, he asked to be buried along side of his friend. Though that wish was not granted, and neither lived to see the official creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they were among an elite few to have place names in their honor. Today, Masa Knob stands next to Mt. Kephart, two peaks for two kindred spirits.
While many of Masa’s photographs remain lost or undiscovered, Bonesteel believes that a large body of his work has been made available to give us plenty of insights into his artistry. Masa, sporting his signature bandana and home-made bicycle wheel odometer that he used to measure distances along trails and up to the tops of mountains, is pictured alongside fellow hikers and curious tourists.
There are various stories of this painstaking perfectionist hiking miles into the woods and waiting for hours to get the clouds and the lighting just right before taking his photos. Masa lugged heavy camera equipment into the wilderness and when he pitched a tent, he might store the camera and equipment under shelter as he slept outside. Sometimes friends and fellow hikers would help him carry the equipment up and over mountains.
Author and outdoors photographer Bill Lea said he admires Masa not only for his creative eye for putting the viewer right in the middle of a wilderness setting but also for his work ethic and his willingness to trek great distances with little provision for himself in his quest to find the best photos.
“In fact,” Lea explained, “many people felt he died young due to the disregard he had for his own welfare and subsequent exposure to the elements in his great desire to capture those perfect images.”
In addition to enduring long hikes and inclement weather through rough terrain, Masa most likely had prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals used in film developing that may have given him respiratory illnesses. He suffered from bouts of tuberculosis and ultimately succumbed to influenza.
And not everyone was keen on Masa.
Bonesteel found evidence in letters that Fred Seely, who once hired Masa as a woodcarver at Biltmore Industries, secretly reported on Masa to the federal government. At a time when immigrants and outsiders were viewed suspiciously, Masa’s meticulous record-keeping and documentation of his photographs may have raised some red flags, but Seely soon called off the dogs when there was no substantive evidence that Masa was doing anything un-American. From Bonesteel’s research, he found some subtle forms of prejudice, but more often than not local residents were accepting of Masa and his work and were attracted to the novelty of a talented Japanese photographer in their midst.
“He did a lot of work to capture the grandness of the mountains,” Bonesteel explained. And even in his more commercial work of buildings and architecture, the quality is still there.
True scope unknown
While Masa has been compared to Ansel Adams, whose photography popularized the Rocky Mountains and the beauty of the western U.S., Bonesteel argues that the two had very different intentions. Adams saw himself as an artist and had his work shown in galleries. Masa never had an exhibition in a gallery during his lifetime and made a living by selling postcards, portraits and tourist shots.
Bonesteel speculates that there may be hundreds, even thousands of Masa photographs still out there waiting to be seen. A Buncombe County listing of Masa’s possessions at his death suggest the possibility of thousands of negatives. Today, there are several sizeable archives of Masa’s work found at Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville, as well as the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.
George Frizzell, head of special collections at Western Carolina’s library, helps to preserve Masa’s photos by storing them in Mylar sleeves to keep the natural oils in fingers from damaging them. Given the latest digital photography techniques and computer scanners, Frizzell hopes that more of Masa’s photos can be stored indefinitely and shown to wider audiences via the Internet.
Since Bonesteel’s film came out in 2003, he has been contacted by a family that once kept Masa as a guest at their boarding house in Asheville. Descendents of the family who knew Masa claim to have letters Masa received from Japan. Masa still owed this family about $1,200 at the time of his death, but they kept his letters because of the beauty of the Japanese characters on paper. If these letters could be acquired and translated, they might shed some light as to whether Masa was still in contact with Japanese family and friends and what his relationship was with them. But so far, Bonesteel hasn’t been able to procure those letters.
“I don’t rule out the possibility that something may come out of that,” he said. “There’s work yet to do. The answers may be out there.”