The View From Above

Photographer George Masa isn't as well known as Ansel Adams, but his lens helped establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park 75 years ago.


By Mike Thomas


Enshrouded by blue haze, a lone figure scans the horizon from his lofty plateau and waits. The breeze blows and the clouds drift, and he waits. The spruces sway and the sunshine beams, and he waits. He tugs at the red bandana on his head, hikes up rumpled khakis on his slight 100-pound frame. Before him is a heavy black large-format camera—a field-tested Deardorff, perhaps—with bellows on the side and a load of 8-by-10-inch sheet film. Perched atop a tripod, it is trained on vanishing old-growth forests (timber-industry skidders have razed great swaths) and  the majesty of distant peaks. And, of course, those clouds, those infernal, fickle clouds. If only they’d drift a hair to the right, if only they’d veil the glaring light, he’d have it—the proverbial picture worth a thousand words. At least.

Then, at last, it’s here. The moment. And he’s ready. He’s always ready. Click! Click! And again and again, until the picture-postcard instant has passed. Pleased though far from satisfied, he gathers gear and scant rations (the bare minimum, as ever), grabs his odd-looking but surprisingly functional handlebar-and-bicycle-wheel contraption rigged with a distance-measuring odometer, and rolls off through rugged backcountry to make camp for the night. Or maybe he’ll head home to Asheville, North Carolina, where he runs a popular photography studio. Tomorrow, come sunshine or showers, he’ll awaken early and begin anew. He’ll search for a perch and set up shop. He’ll survey creation and imagine the shot. And then, once again, he’ll wait. For as long as it takes.

This was George Masa, photographer, conservationist, and a key figure in the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park 75 years ago this June. Born Masahara Iizuka in Japan, the man called the “Ansel Adams of the Southern Appalachian Mountains” was a perfectionist whose passion was matched only by his patience. Though his story has been told in print and on television in recent years, Masa remains something of an enigmatic figure. That may change with his inclusion in documentarian Ken Burns’ upcoming PBS series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which premieres in September.

Paul Bonesteel, who wrote and directed a fine 2002 documentary of Masa’s life called The Mystery of George Masa, gives some sense of the burdens Masa bore and the often trail-less terrain he traversed during the decade-and-a-half or so he roamed the wilderness. “If you’ve ever hiked three or four miles anywhere, you begin to realize how far it really is on foot,” Bonesteel says. “Pack yourself up with a bunch of gear, let alone anything to sleep in or to eat, and you’re maxed out pretty quickly. And those cameras weren’t really designed with [traveling in mind. In later years,] people in the hiking club helped him carry things here and there. But I’ve been on some of these trails—I’ve been to some of the places where he took photographs, and it’s just hard work.”

In his youth, Masa is said to have studied mining engineering at Meige University in Tokyo and continued his engineering schooling at the University of Colorado. He then lived for a time in New Orleans before settling, at age 24, in the rather unlikely town of Asheville. “He was probably a little out of place—this tiny Asian man with broken English in a time when there wasn’t much diversity here,” says Steve Kemp, interpretive products and services director for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Nonetheless, Masa assimilated with astounding ease. During his residency in the area, which began in 1915, Asheville was (and remains) the site of George Vanderbilt’s sprawling Biltmore Estate as well as a bustling hub for visiting VIPs. Although Masa was known for much of his time in town as a top-notch still shooter and an accomplished newsreel photographer, his first gig was as a valet at Asheville’s tony Grove Park Inn. Funded by wealthy businessman Edwin Wiley Grove and opened in 1913, it still hosts visitors today. The high-class resort—run by Grove’s son-in-law, Fred L. Seely—was an idyllic refuge for such icons of politics and industry as Eleanor Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford. It also proved an ideal place for the outgoing and personable Masa. With Seely’s help, the aspiring photographer kick-started his career by developing film for guests and capturing candids of them on and off the inn grounds. In performing these services and his valet duties, he formed numerous friendships and earned the goodwill of movers and shakers who would one day support his efforts to transform the wilds of western North Carolina from exploited woodland to protected park. When he left to start his own studio, Masa also documented much of Asheville itself—the buildings, the landscapes, and the people.

Aside from cataloging mountain peaks and the distances between them, Masa helped blaze North Carolina’s portion of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail. He was often aided on photographic treks by members of the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club and the Carolina Mountain Club, his frequent hiking companions. Completed in 1937 (four years after Masa’s death), the trail stretches through six national parks, eight national forests, and 14 states from Georgia to Maine. The park movement was a project—an obsession, really—that consumed most of Masa’s days. And even though a national park would have been born without his involvement, those who’ve studied him say, the thousands of images he captured and dispersed to persons of influence went a long way toward facilitating the complex process. (He sent a book of shots to Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, whose husband green-lighted the park’s formation in 1926.)

Considerable funds from Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as the federal government under Franklin Delano Roosevelt (another lodger of Grove Park Inn), helped immensely. So did a stunning $5 million donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who, like many others, had met Masa during a stay at the inn. Ever the entrepreneur, Masa built a network of such contacts, including higher-ups in the National Park Service, and won them over with his unflagging dedication, generous nature, and artistic flair.

“Dear Sir,” begins a letter from Rockefeller to Masa dated November 20, 1928. “Thank you for the two photographs which you took in front of the hotel at Asheville the other morning. If these photographs were meant to be complimentary, I accept them with appreciation. If they were sent to me to buy, kindly forward your bill to the above address.”

Money, though, was not Masa’s goal. Not in that case. Not always. As one friend remarked, he had “the talent and soul of an artist.” Although he appears to have made a decent living early on, the majority of his modest profits were poured back into equipment and supplies. “The thing that I think was most singular about [Masa] was his strong sense of commitment to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail,” says William A. Hart, Jr., a writer and regional historian whose essay on Masa appeared in May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Culture of Western North Carolina, Vol. 1. “And it was a singular dedication that I think you see in few people, to the point that he actually sacrificed himself, he sacrificed his business.”

Masa’s solo endeavors had an impact, but his partnership with writer and expert outdoorsman Horace Kephart (whom he usually referred to as “Kep”) was even more effective in spreading the gospel about God’s country. Before they met in the late 1920s, Masa was well established as a photographic ace, and Kephart, in Bryson City, North Carolina, was the bestselling author of Camping and Woodcraft and Our Southern Highlanders—the latter a classic behind-the-scenes look at the Southern Appalachians and Great Smoky Mountains, published in 1913. Kephart, though, had a dark side. A binge drinker whose family life was in shambles, he sometimes spiraled into boozy oblivion. But his work, like Masa’s, was impeccable. Not surprisingly, the marriage of Masa’s photos and Kephart’s prose was a perfect union. The men themselves bonded as well. Though their cultural and professional backgrounds were wholly dissimilar (Kephart was trained as a librarian), in many ways they were kindred spirits.

“Kephart was quite a linguist,” says George Ellison, a Bryson City-based writer and historian. “He had traveled in Italy, had an interest in languages, and so dealing with someone who was not a native American would have been no problem for him. He probably welcomed it.” The two shared a deeply rooted love of and almost spiritual connection to nature as well. In the Smokies, Ellison says, both men found “a place of refuge—a place they could get away from it all, these previous life histories.” And their dispositions were apparently compatible as well. Ellison calls them “intense” and “self-starters, almost to an nth degree” that many might identify as “Type-A personalities—in a nice way.”

Like many who knew Masa, Kephart was impressed with his friend’s drive  and amazed by his indefatigable acumen for exploration and map-making pursued as part of the park’s three-member North Carolina nomenclature committee, which ensured the accuracy of maps and resolved conflicts over the duplication of landmark names. Kephart made this admiration known in a letter to the chairman of the Tennessee nomenclature committee, Paul Fink, writing of his astonishment that Masa “should have done all this exploring and photographing and mapping, on his own hook, without compensation but at much expense to himself, out of sheer loyalty to the park idea and a fine sense of scenic values. He deserves a monument.”

And he’d get one, but not for decades. Kep’s honor, rare for someone still living, would come first in the form of a 6,217-foot-high peak dubbed Mt. Kephart. But Kep dwelled in its shadow for only two years. In early April of 1931, Kephart died in a car accident that reportedly involved alcohol. Masa was crushed. “Kep is gone forever,” he wrote to Fink. “His death, it shocked me to pieces. I never experience such feelings in my life. But we must keep going on what we have in our hands. And I like to carry out what Kep wanted.”

To the best of his ability, he did just that by continuing work on both the Appalachian Trail and the park’s creation. But the Great Depression was growing worse, and loans—personal and business—were increasingly scarce. Already shaky, Masa’s financial situation hit rock bottom. Before long, so did his health. Tuberculosis and complications from influenza finally withered him on June 21, 1933. He was 51 and less than a year away from seeing his dream become reality. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established on June 15, 1934.

“The queer blue haze that clings like a veil to the loftiest points in the Southern Appalachians struck his imagination,” read Masa’s obituary on the front page of the Asheville Times, “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 mid-morning funeral service at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery, held two days after his death, was brief but well attended. His gravesite remained unmarked for nearly five years for lack of funds, and early efforts to have Masa and Kephart buried side-by-side in the Smokies failed. But a far grander reunion was in the offing. In late April 1961—more than three decades after Horace Kephart suggested a monument for Masa and years after the Carolina Mountain Club began efforts to memorialize its former leader—it finally happened. Situated at 5,685 feet, only a boulder’s roll from Mt. Kephart, is Masa Knob. As in life, two forces of nature stand watch over lands they loved.

Although Masa’s spirit has survived, most of his photographs and negatives have not. “At one point Masa believed he had over 2,500 images of the park,” says Lynne Poirier-Wilson, curator of a recent Masa exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum. Most of the 40 images showcased were borrowed from the Pack Memorial Library in Asheville. “When he died, the business was sold, those images went to a new owner [Asheville photographer E.L. Fisher], and they were eventually just lost.”

In his final days, Masa had been working on a pocket-size Smokies guidebook with local newspaperman George McCoy. There’s no way of knowing whether that project would have sparked a turnaround in his business affairs, but it may well have boosted his professional profile. Unfortunately, he never had the chance to find out.

“Masa’s death changed everything,” Bonesteel says. “He was putting his name on things, and the guidebook had a lot of his heart and soul in it. I think if he’d lived another ten or 30 years, we not only would have a much bigger archive of his finer photographs, but he would have been perceived, even in his lifetime, as more of a fine artist. I would like to think he’d have merged into that Ansel Adams crowd, but who knows?”

Mike Thomas, a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written for Esquire, Salon.com, and Smithsonian.

This article appears in the Summer 2009 issue.

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