George Masa was born Masahara Iizuka in Japan about 1881 and arrived to the United States around 1913. In 1915, he was recruited by an employment agency in New Orleans, LA to work at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC. Later, he became acquainted with the Vanderbilt family and found work at Biltmore Industries as a woodcarver. He started his photographic business by developing film for hotel guests but quickly began taking photographs during his explorations of the surrounding mountains. Although he is best known for his photographs of landscapes, Masa also photographed Asheville buildings, wealthy tourists, local mountain folk, and Cherokee rituals. Many of his photographs appeared in newspapers, magazines, postcards, and promotional brochures (although most were used without crediting Masa), which helped popularize the Western North Carolina region.
Much of Masa’s photographic work stemmed from his desire to capture the beauty of the landscape in an effort to convince government officials that the land should be under conservation and preservation. He worked tirelessly for this effort alongside the Carolina Mountain Club, often at his own expense. Using his photographic equipment and an odometer he crafted from an old bicycle, he meticulously catalogued a significant number of peaks, the distances between them, and the names given to them by the local settlers and the Cherokee. He and his friend Horace Kephart worked together to ensure that a large portion of the Great Smoky Mountains would be established as a national park. Masa also scouted and marked the entire North Carolina portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Masa was an extraordinary photographer, but due to his poor financial standing, he had no access to proper healthcare and died of tuberculosis in 1933. One year later, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established. In 1961, Masa Knob, a peak of 5685 feet in the park, was named in his honor. On May 4, 2018, Masa was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame.
Other works by: George Masa