Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but Masa was a pivotal player in the struggle to have a national park established in the mountains of Western North Carolina. He was a photographer, and it was his photographs that helped convince the National Park Service that the Southern mountains were worthy of being preserved in a national park.
Masa was born Masahara Izuka in Osaka Japan in the early 1880s. He came to the US in 1905, and in 1915 he came to Asheville as a tourist. He loved the mountains so much that he stayed and began working at the Grove Park Inn. By 1918 he had opened a photography studio, Plateau Studios, where he made studio photos and street scenes of Asheville.
But increasingly, he began lugging his camera and equipment into the mountains. He began making photos that were colorized and made into postcards, like the one of the Lake Lure Inn above. He also made motion films for various services. He was a very busy man. He became friends with Horace Kephart, well-known writer of the mountains, and he was involved with the new Carolina Mountain Club.
Through club outings, in which he was often assisted by some of the women of the group, he began mapping and measuring the mountains. He made meticulous records, maps, and photo albums which labeled the southern Applachian area.
Masa had done well as a photographer, and he used the money he made to finance his mountain expeditions. However, the Depression hit Asheville hard, and Masa struggled financially for the last years of his life. He and Kephart continued to push for a national park, but neither man lived to see it happen. Kephart died in an auto accident in 1931 and Masa died in 1933 of a respiratory ailment, most likely the flu. The next year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed.
After his death, the man who had played such a major part in the formation of the Park was all but forgotten. Over the years several local scholors had researched his life, but his work was still widely unknown, partly due to his photographic negatives being sold to another photographer after his death. But several years ago, local film maker Paul Bonesteel ran across Masa’s story and was intrigued. He set out to study the written and oral reconds. Masa had written many letters to his friends which still exist, and there were quite a few people still alive who had memories of him.
The resulting film, The Mystery of George Masa is a fascinating study of how an immigrant from Japan managed to carve a niche for himself here in the mountains, and at the same time saw the beauty of the mountains, many of which had been stripped bare by clear cut foresting.
I happened on the film last week. There is a small exhibit of Masa photographs at Western Carolina University. Because the 75th anniversary of the park is this year, he has been talked about quite a bit. At the exhibit, the museum has the film playing. I was listening as I browsed the photos, but then when they began to talk about the women members of the Carolina Mountain Club, I was hooked.
I’m almost finished with this over-long post, but one more interesting thing. In the film it is brought out that material for the documentary was gathered from many sources, including thrift stores! Because Masa in not a household name, and even if he were, his name is not commonly found on his work, many people in the Asheville area might still have Masa photographs in old photo albums, and from time to time they do resurface.
But the biggest stash of undiscovered Masa photos is probably in Florida. The guy who bought Masa’s negatives was Elliot Lyman Fisher. He retired and moved to Florida where he died in 1968. Attempts to find these negatives have been unsuccessful. Hopefully they are still out there.
The Mystery of George Masa, in a shortened version, will be shown on many PBS stations on September 28.
PS for those who will want to argue the evilness of the formation of the GSMNP:
I am not unsympathetic to the argument that many people were displaced by the park’s formation and that an entire culture was erased. In fact, my husband’s grandparents lost their home, so believe me, I know how bad this was. However, it has to be said that the great majority of the land came from lumber companies who had stripped the mountains bare. And over the years, seeing what has happened to the Southern Applachians that are not protected, I think we all need to put it into perspective. Yes, whole communities were displaced and people were misled. But if the park had not been established, then we’d have multi-million dollar houses dotting the area, and it would all be gated. Sometimes the end is worth a sacrifice. Feel free to post your comments about this issue, but be nice. If I get some of the nasty remarks that I’ve read on other blogs concerning this issue, I will delete them.