He lay against white sheets, a slight figure wasted by disease. Friends came to see him, sat beside him, reached out to touch his arm. They asked whether he was comfortable. Could they get him anything? But he was out of reach now. He had traveled beyond words.
More than 60 seasons had passed since George Masa arrived in the North Carolina mountains—winters when ice draped the firs, springs when the bloodroot unfurled along the trail, summers when the Turk's-cap lily nodded above the wet places, autumns when the mountainsides were in flame.
Now he was dying. Influenza, along with the chronic ravages of tuberculosis, had sent him weeks before to this bed, at the county sanitarium in Asheville. It was an end that likely no one would have predicted for Masa, a man who had walked nearly every mile of the mountains. A brief, hopeful notice in a newsletter of the Carolina Mountain Club from the time said it best: "Who'd have thought that George Masa, of all people, would fall victim to Old Man Flu?"
Masa, a Japanese immigrant who died on June 21, 1933, blazed a singular path through the North Carolina mountains. He was, among a number of things, a photographer of rare skill and sensitivity, a dogged advocate for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a key figure in the identification and naming of the park's natural features, and a chief engineer of the North Carolina portion of Appalachian Trail.
This year, the celebration surrounding the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has stirred to life what might be described as the year of George Masa. Earlier this summer, Masa's landscapes were featured in an exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum; another exhibit of Masa's work is ongoing at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee. The late photographer has been the subject of recent features in the regional and national press, including WNC Magazine and National Parks magazine. And next month, Masa's life and achievements will reach their widest audience yet, as part of Ken Burns' new documentary on PBS, The National Parks: America's Best Idea.
Despite all the attention, Masa remains an elusive figure. He is a knot of contradictions: a socialite of scant means, a stranger with a thousand friends. He was an intensely private man who nevertheless managed to leave behind stacks of correspondence and handwritten records. As a businessman, he was shrewd but constantly in need of money. Trusted by many of the region's most powerful men and women, he was once suspected of being nothing less than an international spy.
"He's just a phenomenal curiosity," says Paul Bonesteel, the Asheville filmmaker whose 2003 documentary, The Mystery of George Masa, is the most comprehensive accounting of Masa's life to date. ""There are just so many unanswered questions about him."
Here is a little of what we know about George Masa: He was born Masahara Izuka in Osaka, Japan, sometime in the early 1880s. His father was a jeweler, maybe. He is believed to have had at least one sibling, a brother. Around 1905, he arrived in the United States and traveled throughout the country by rail, keeping detailed notes of his location and expenses.
He passed through New Orleans and St. Louis, and may have spent several months in Colorado. In 1915, along with a handful of fellow travelers from Austria, he reached Asheville. In time the Austrians left; Izuka stayed. He found a job at the Grove Park Inn, and within a few years had given himself a new name, George Masa.
Work at the inn suited him. Masa was a laundry worker at first, then a bellhop, and finally, a valet to guests arriving at the inn. His rapport with guests was excellent, and as time permitted, he began taking pictures of them at their request, converting a portion of the Grove Park into a darkroom where, for a fee, he developed and printed the images.
Three years later, he established a photographic studio, first named Plateau Studios, later named Asheville Photo Service, in downtown Asheville. At first, hardly an event took place in town that escaped Masa's lens, but his interest, increasingly, was focused on the high places. Excursions led him out of town and into the mountains, where his tools of choice were an unwieldy box camera that used 8-by-10-inch film plates, a canvas sling to carry it in, a wooden tripod and, strangest of all, a bicycle wheel fitted with handlebars and an odometer, a device that allowed Masa to measure and record the distances he hiked.
Except for a few contemporary stories about him in the Asheville Citizen and a regrettably named profile ("The Little Jap") in a 1953 issue of The State magazine, little was written about Masa prior to 1997, when William Hart Jr.'s biography, "George Masa: The Best Mountaineer" appeared in the book May We All Remember Well, Vol. I (Robert S. Brunk Auction Services, Inc.).
Hart's amply cited work provided the ideal jumping-off point for Paul Bonesteel's documentary on Masa. "I called Bill Hart and asked him, 'How much more is there about this Masa guy?'" Bonesteel recalls. "And he said, 'Honestly, I've just scratched the surface.'"
Bonesteel and his crew made phone calls, spent months digging through archival materials, and interviewed most of the surviving people who knew Masa. The resulting film, an obsessive 90-minute tale, follows Masa from his blurry beginnings to his early years in Asheville, through to his role in helping to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the work he did establishing the North Carolina portion of the Appalachian Trail, right up to his death in 1933.
Yet the project stirred up nearly as many questions as it answered. Where, for instance, had Masa gained his photographic skills? Why had he made a habit of telling people that he was a graduate of the mining program at Meige University in Tokyo, an institution that has on its rolls no record of a Masahara Izuka? And, more to the point, what had prompted him to leave Japan in the first place?
Then there is the question of Masa's photographs. Around 1,000 of his images are currently accounted for, but an estimated 2,500 of his negatives—which may include the lion's share of his Great Smoky Mountains work—have never been found. After Masa's death, the negatives were purchased by another Asheville photographer, Elliot Lyman Fisher, who ran a studio here for 15 years before retiring to Florida, where he died in 1968. (There is, as yet, no encouraging news about those negatives from the Sunshine State.)
The better images by Masa—the ones we do have—are tonally complex, full of deep shadows and penetrating light. In one of them, a Smokies vista marked simply as "O-2250," this quality is especially well represented. A bank of clouds hovers slightly above the distant peaks, admitting enough light to touch off the horizon in a bright glow. Sunlight rolls down the valley floor, arrow-like, ending at a dark cleft that shadows the foreground completely.
"People think of our mountains and the words 'divine inspiration' come to mind," says Martin DeWitt, director and curator of Western Carolina University's Fine Art Museum. "Well, Masa achieved that feeling by capturing a precise atmospheric moment. You can imagine him out there waiting for a sunrise, having left Asheville at probably three in the morning, sitting out in the cold and rain and finally, here it comes—the moment that he's been waiting for. There's more than just an artistic vision at work in his photographs; there's a tremendous sacrifice there as well."
Western's current exhibit on Masa, on loan from the university's Hunter Library collection, focuses on the photographer's less grandiose work. Among the 35 pieces on display is a scrapbook of Masa photos taken during a Carolina Mountain Club ascent of Mount Mitchell in 1924. Each snapshot-size photo—there are 25 of them—is hand-notated with the names and elevations of the physical features they show.
Smaller still are the 10 photographs in the exhibit—none bigger than 3 inches on a side—of mountain wildflowers, detailed images that show signs of being retouched, perhaps for reproduction as postcards.
The largest image by far in the Western exhibit is one that the photographer didn't actually take. The photograph is of Masa himself as a young, recent arrival to the mountains. Dressed in a fine wool suit and crowned with a puffy wool hat, Masa stands on a bare patch of ground, both hands clasping a bunch of aster flowers. He is smiling a mild smile; his shadow falls hard against the ground behind him, suggesting that the picture was taken late in the day.
"It seems like it offers personal insight into his unique character," says DeWitt. "It features him as what everyone seemed to say about him: that he was a gentle soul."
A "gentle soul," perhaps, but Masa clearly had a steely side. His rigorous approach to outdoor photography exposed him to hardship on a daily basis and may have contributed to his declining health. (The harsh darkroom chemicals he worked with may have been an aggravating factor in his respiratory troubles as well.)
That same spirit of persistence is evident in all of Masa's following work. After befriending the backwoods author Horace Kephart in the early 1920s, Masa joined him in applying considerable pressure to federal officials to turn the Smokies, a landscape increasingly ravaged by industrial logging, into a national preserve. Masa's photographs were clear evidence of the region's natural glory—or what was left of it, at least. The men's close friendship and their agitation for the park idea provided an ideal entry point for the Smokies segment of the Ken Burns' new documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, explains Dayton Duncan, the series' writer and producer.
"Kephart was remarkably eloquent in making the case for the park [and] Masa's photographs were a tremendous visual complement to that," Duncan says. "In George Masa's case, his life is about as dramatic a representation of the power of the national park idea as anyone could ever find. An immigrant from a different nation falls in love with a beautiful portion of America and sets out to do everything he can to preserve that place for future generations of Americans. Deep in his heart, he understood that these majestic and sacred portions of our land need to be saved on behalf of everyone. As Kephart himself said, 'He deserves a monument.'"
As a complement to the Burns project, Bonesteel's documentary, pared down to an hour-long program, will run alongside the series on a number of public television stations nationwide, including UNC-TV. "We're excited about the Burns collaboration," says Bonesteel. "It's great knowing that Masa's story will finally get widespread attention."
But the search for George Masa isn't over yet. Today, Bonesteel maintains a blog dedicated to the late photographer, posting whatever new clues to Masa's story he happens to come across. Last year, a man named Gaylord Shepherd happened by the Web page and left a note, mentioning that his father had been involved with James Madison Chiles, developer of the Kenilworth neighborhood, south of downtown Asheville. Among the records his father had kept, Shepherd told Bonesteel, were some photographs Masa had taken of the project.
"So he invited me over and sure enough—here are 30 or 40 photos by Masa showing the Kenilworth area as it was being developed," Bonesteel says. "Historically they're interesting, but do they reveal any bombshells? Not really. Still, if those photographs are out there, who knows what else still is?"
In fact there is another crumb out there, one that seems to lie perpetually beyond Bonesteel's grasp. Not long after Masa died, a string of letters, written in Japanese, began arriving at the last residence where Masa boarded. Apparently, the owners held onto them. Descendants of the family still live in the area, and believe that the letters are stored on the premises somewhere. For several years, Bonesteel has carried on a fitful negotiation with the family, hoping that the letters—if recovered—might provide at least the smallest link to Masa's Japanese beginnings. So far, nothing.
"What I've learned through all this is how hard it is to get a true picture of a person," Bonesteel says. "You take a core sampling of their life and all you know is that one little sliver. It's just a fraction, a narrow representation, of the life they led."
[Kent Priestley lives in Knoxville, Tenn.]