New book spotlights the life of Appalachia photographer Masa

Noted photographer George Masa arrived in the United States in 1906 from Osaka, Japan, as Masahara Iizuka and, like many immigrants, changed his name.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

George Masa is a quintessential, turn-of-the-20th-century immigration story, and Brent Martin, local naturalist, author, poet, and director of the Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy, captures the essence of the Japanese-American photographer’s life’s work in the fresh-off-the-presses book, “George Masa’s Wild Vision.” Part biography, part photography, part reflection, “Wild Vision” delves into how Masa’s stunning black and white images drew the attention of John D. Rockefeller, who donated $5 million for the initial land purchases that became the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. 

The book conveys how Masa arrived in the United States in 1906 as Masahara Iizuka and, like many immigrants, changed his name. While the history regarding how he ended up in the Asheville area while in his 20s is not clear, Masa undoubtedly established himself as a tenacious, self-taught photographer who many referred to as the “Ansel Adams of the Southern Appalachians.” He was also a friend and conservation companion to author and preservationist Horace Kephart. 

Martin, who has been a career explorer and conservationist and has authored other books, including, “The Changing Blue Ridge Mountains: Essays on Journeys Past & Present,” decided to focus on Masa in order to call attention to some of the areas of the Appalachian Mountains that Masa explored and recorded photographically. 

“I’ve been working on this project since the fall of 2019,” said Martin. “That was when I had the first conversation with Hub City Press [publisher] about it, and then the pandemic hit, but that gave me a chance to pull it together. I started making trips out to the places that Masa photographed; in fact, the book’s format was to visit every place Masa visited and write about it in a 21st century context.” 

Martin traversed the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Highlands Plateau, Chimney Rock, Mount Mitchell, and more.

“This is a book that looks at Masa’s landscape and then expresses aspects of the same landscape, 100 years later,” added Martin. “Some places have changed, some not so much … but the book is really juxtaposing the two eras. For example, the Three Forks area of the Smoky Mountain National Park is wilder than ever. So it was kind of cool to see a place that has been ‘re-wilded’ instead of becoming more crowded and used.”

Martin explained that Masa shot more than 90 photos in Highlands alone, and Martin includes 20 of those in the book. Overall, the book features approximately 100 of Masa’s photographed scenes throughout Western North Carolina.

Martin pointed out that he learned much about Masa while researching and writing.

 “Masa was an enigma. Most people in this area had never seen an Asian person before, and there were anti-Asian-immigration laws at the time. He had to overcome personal barriers … professional barriers. Yet, he became one of the most respected people in this area, and it’s just an incredible story. He pulled so much off, and he wasn’t even from this place. His life says a lot about what a person truly can accomplish when they put their mind to it. He ate, slept, and breathed this place, and his life was so inspiring.”  

Masa died in Asheville of influenza in 1933, but not before blazing countless trails, photographing vast expanses, measuring and recording peaks, and doing his part to map the Appalachian Trail and advocate for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

In fact, a 5,685 feet-high peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is named Masa Knob; it is located on the North Carolina-Tennessee state line about three miles from Newfound Gap and is situated between Charlie’s Bunion and, ironically, Mt. Kephart, named for his friend. 

Martin visited Masa Knob as well. Hiking to the same areas where Masa set up his photography equipment enabled Martin to truly grasp an “intuition” about the long-deceased man. 

“It was a personal journey of sorts, to put this book together. Thank goodness for deadlines because I could have just kept on researching and exploring the places he visited and writing about him. He fascinated me.” 

Martin will share information and sign books at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center on Tuesday, June 28, at 6:30 p.m.