The story of George Masa, Appalachia’s Ansel Adams

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Photo by George Masa courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections

Before WNC’s natural beauty routinely graced travel publications and social media accounts, there was a time when its most awe-inspiring sights remained unknown, unexplored, and largely undocumented. That is, until George Masa entered the frame in the early 1900s.

George Masa poses with his cameras. | Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections

Masa, an intrepid, tenacious + diligent photographer, dedicated his life to exploring and documenting the ruggedly gorgeous swaths of land that are now recognized as the Appalachian Trail, Pisgah National Forest, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

And the scope of his work was far more than pretty pictures — his photography is credited as one of the main reasons the Smoky Mountains gained the support necessary to become a national park. Historians also attribute Masa with sparking powerful social change in the realms of conservation and preservation. 

Want a closer snapshot of his life? Let’s look back at how he found Asheville in the first place — and the impressive legacy he left behind.

From Osaka to Asheville 

A Japanese immigrant, he was born Masahara Izuka in Osaka in the early 1880s. While the details are murky, historians believe that in 1905 he stole passage on a ship to San Francisco as a 25 year-old and started going by George after converting to Christianity. After devoting a decade to traveling the country by rail, he reached Asheville in 1915 and took up work at the Grove Park Inn as a laundry worker, bellhop, and eventually a valet. It was then that he shortened his name from Masaharu to Masa, as a matter of convenience. 

The peak of his career 

Once a camera found its way into Masa’s hands, his life changed forever. He began lugging a heavy, 8 x 10 inch camera (along with a wooden tripod and odometer setup) through our region’s most rugged landscapes — a particularly impressive feat for a man just over 5 ft tall who weighed ~100 pounds. 

In 1918, he opened his own studio: Asheville Photo Service, and through the remainder of his life, mapped out hundreds of uncleared trails in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, including a considerable chunk of the modern-day Appalachian Trail that runs from the Virginia-NC border down to Georgia. 

The iconic Horace Kephart | Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections

In the early 1920s, Masa met famed writer, naturalist + conservationist Horace Kephart, and they developed a close kinship that would last for the rest of their lives. Together, the duo made maps + promotional materials that supported the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because they were both worried about losing the mountains to logging and other forms of clear cutting, conserving the land was of utmost importance to them. 

Posthumously, their work managed to attract the attention of financier John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated $5 million to the cause, and later President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used $1.5 million in government funds to create the park. 

Mapping his legacy  

Masa died from tuberculosis complications at the age of 52 on June 21, 1933. Although he requested a burial near his friend Horace Kephart in Bryson City, NC (a future site of the Great Smokies National Park) he was ultimately buried at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery

We’re not entirely sure why this wish wasn’t honored, but it might’ve had something to do with the fact that he was penniless and in debt when he died, due to the Great Depression. After his death, much of Masa’s work wound up in the hands of Asheville photographer Elliot Lyman Fisher, who bought 6,000 of Masa’s negatives soon after Masa’s death, reprinted them in his own name, and died with many of them in his possession. However, thanks to the hard work of local historians, many of his prints have been recovered since then.

In 1961, a 5,685-ft peak adjacent to Mount Kephart was named Masa Knob in honor of his tireless and brave expeditions. In 2003, Asheville filmmaker Paul Bonesteel produced the documentary “The Mystery of George Masa,” the most comprehensive history of Masa’s life to date. The Buncombe County Special Collections have also compiled an impressive collection of Masa’s photographs, along with records of correspondence between Kephart and Masa.