“Started on an adventure today,” the newspaper read. Masaharu Iizuka, a handsome young man with a broad smile, wrote the passage in Japanese characters on what we believe to be his birthday, January 18, 1915.
To kick off his adventure, he boarded a train in San Francisco and headed east, eventually making his way to Asheville, where he took a job in the laundry room of the stylish Grove Park Inn. .
But serving as a valet to the rich and famous was not what attracted this Japanese man to the United States. Like other young immigrants, Masaharu Iizuka had great aspirations and ambitions. Like them, he imagines a “great future, the castle of success”. He struggled to move on, tried to move to Colorado, thought about becoming a barber or a miner, signed with another boss … but WNC kept pulling him back.
Four years after his time in the laundry room, the entrepreneur started turning his dreams into reality. He opened his own photography studio, documenting the burgeoning town, its prominent visitors, and the mountain scenery surrounding the Asheville area. To make it easier for customers, he westernized his name to George Masa. The Vanderbilts hired him to photograph their Biltmore gardens while industrialists and architects hired him to showcase Asheville’s striking new buildings and progressive civic improvements. Masa became the official photographer for the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. He branched out into film, working with major film companies including Paramount, Pathé and Warner Brothers.
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When he wasn’t shooting cityscapes, Masa was in the mountains. He photographed a landscape few had seen, let alone explored. Masa was the kind of photographer that historian and curator John Szarkowski has described as “the photographer-explorer…a new kind of image-maker: part scientist, part journalist, and part artist.
Challenged by the mountainous terrain and fickle weather of the Smokies, Masa overcame these obstacles to capture the power and beauty of the mountains. His contributions helped convince a nation that the Great Smoky Mountains, the last wilderness in the East, were worth protecting as a national park.
Masa advanced well above the treeline pushing a wheel odometer along a remote trail that would soon become the Appalachian Trail. He was weighed down by his ubiquitous camera, but nothing else but a box of caviar and some bread. He measured, mapped and prepared trail data for the southern part of the AT.
Masa was an unofficial publicity arm of the park, sending Great Smoky Mountains National Park photo albums to the governors of North Carolina and Tennessee and First Lady Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. Horace Kephart, Masa’s friend and advocate for the creation of the park, was amazed at all the “exploration, photography and mapping” that Masa had done “without compensation but at great expense to himself, out of sheer loyalty to the idea of the park and a strong sense of scenic values.
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Masa also believed in the restorative power of nature. As he confided to a friend, “When I go on a trip, these things don’t bother me. I just left the office and went into the woods, got some fresh balm air, then came back to fight hard, no need to worry, that’s how I do it.
Masa’s story is one of perseverance and dedication. The early 20th century was plagued by anti-immigrant fury and restrictive legislation. Masa was hospitalized with the flu during the 1918 pandemic, someone stole his car and wrecked it, his business languished in the economic depression of the 1930s. He died in 1933 at County Home – pulmonary tuberculosis was the cause of death.
The Carolina Mountain Club buried George Masa in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery, paying for the land, headstone, and ultimately successfully lobbying for a mountain peak named in his honor, Masa Knob. One of his hiking companions wrote: “A lot of people do things for money, they expect something tangible from it. I don’t think George ever expected anything more than satisfaction. … I think he was just a dedicated person … like Johnny Appleseed.
Masa’s headstone lists his date of birth as January 20, 1881; census records and draft registration data suggest other dates. With the encouragement of the Great Smoky Mountains Association and the support of the Podell Endowment Award for Research and Scholarship, we hope to uncover some of the basic details of Masa’s early life, including his date of birth, educational background, and date of his arrival in the United States. for an upcoming biography of the photographer.
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There are many gaps in Masaharu Iizuka’s early history, but much of his legacy is accessible to us today. Brent Martin travels through Masa’s “photographic footprints” in his forthcoming book, “George Masa’s Wild Vision: A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina,” to be published by Hub City Press later this year.
You too can follow in Masa’s footsteps. For inspiration, visit the many photos of Masa available online at Buncombe County Special Collections.
Masa’s mantra, “More walking, less talking” is a perfect New Year’s resolution. So strap on your boots, grab a hiking pole, maybe even a can of caviar, and head out to explore the Smokies , hike Chimney Rock State Park, or hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. Embark on your own adventure today.
Filmmaker Paul Bonesteel and writer Janet McCue are working on a full biography of George Masa to be published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association in 2023. The GSMA is a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learn more at SmokiesInformation.org.