Work of the Week – March 2, 2015
by Sadie Barner
“The queer blue haze that clings like a veil to the loftiest points in the Southern Appalachians struck his imagination, and through his skills as a photographer he sought for years to tear aside that veil and find new beauty for the eye in the dim distances.” – Masa’s Obituary in the Asheville Times
As the weather is slowly but surely getting warm, the time many people spend outside is vastly increasing. For some, this means hiking in these wonderful mountains we call home. Some might even go to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for their hiking adventures. I, for one, have been there once or twice and seen countless photographs of scenic views. However, I have never considered its creation or the artist who might have made that possible. George Masa may not have been the sole reason for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail — but his photographs played a key role.
George Masa was born as Massahara Jizuka in Osaka, Japan around 1881. He moved to the United States in 1901 to study mining. At age 24 he settled in Asheville, NC and found a job as a bellhop at the Grove Park Inn. This job would later be essential to distributing his photographs. It was during this time that he started to learn the art of photography. Eventually he opened his own studio.
Masa then met and befriended Horace Kephart, a linguistic. Together the two began a project to promote their idea of a national park and the Appalachian Trail. Masa would take photographs and Kephart would do the writing. Because Masa had work as a bellhop at the Grove Park Inn, he had met many influential people. He sent off his photographs to these people in order to raise money for the project. John D. Rockefeller Jr. saw his photos and donated $5 million.
However, neither Masa nor Kephart would live to see their dream come true. Kephart died in a tragic car accident. The death of his friend was devastating to Masa but he pushed forward with their goals. However, with the crash of the stock market and the great depression settling in, the funding for the Great Smoky National Park was dwindling. Masa’s own finances were a wreck and his health began to deteriorate. He died in 1933 in a county hospital. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1934, a year after Masa’s death.
Masa has been called the “Ansel Adams of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.” His photographs are as beautiful as the mountain range. It was no easy task to take those photographs. In a time before trails, Masa was climbing through wilderness not only caring his hiking supplies but also his camera gear. In Masa’s time those were not easy cameras to transport. His story of determination and luck is inspiring. His black and white silver gelatin prints bring the mountain range to life.
As you step out into the warming spring air, think of the hard work and dedication it took to create something like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Appalachian Trail. Maybe even consider a visit to Mount Kephart or Masa Knob.
Artwork above: George Masa, Untitled Mountain Landscape, c. 1920, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Nat C. Myers Photography Fund. Permanent Collection. 2005.02.01.91.