Mapping the Mountains: The Photographs of George Masa

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beginning next Friday, a new exhibit called Mapping the Mountains: The Photographs of George Masa opens at the Asheville Art Museum. The exhibit examines the photography of George Masa, a man also known as "the Ansel Adams of the East". Many of his photographs were used to promote the idea of preserving the Smoky Mountains as a national park.

Masa, born in 1881, was a Japanese businessman and professional photographer who arrived in the United States in 1901. In 1915 he settled in Asheville, North Carolina where he would spend the rest of his life.

After initially working for the Grove Park Inn as a bellhop and valet, and at Biltmore Industries as a woodcarver, Masa would eventually start his photographic business by developing film for hotel guests. His customers included some of the town's most affluent citizens such as the Vanderbilt, Grove and Seely families. As his work grew, he began taking his own photographs specializing in landscapes. Many of his photographs appeared in newspapers, magazines, postcards and promotional brochures, and did much to popularize the region.

Masa came to love the mountains of Western North Carolina and worked tirelessly for their preservation - at his own expense. Using his photographic equipment and an odometer he crafted from an old bicycle wheel, Masa 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 was a close friend of Horace Kephart and the two of them worked together to promote the establishment of a national park in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Masa also helped to establish a route for the Appalachian Trail through the Southern mountains. He helped found the Carolina Mountain Club and co-authored the first guide books to the Smokies and southern section of the Appalachian Trail.

Masa died in 1933 from influenza. Although he was an extraordinary photographer, Masa was not financially adept and wound up dying penniless. His sincere desire was to be buried next to Horace Kephart near Bryson City, NC, who tragically died in a car accident in 1931. Instead, Masa was buried in Asheville. One year after his death, Great Smoky Mountains was officially established as a national park.

In 1961, Masa Knob, a 5685-foot peak in the Great Smoky Mountains, was named in his honor. It stands next to Mt. Kephart.

Mapping the Mountains: The Photographs of George Masa, will be on exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum from February 6 - June 7. The Museum is located at 2 South Pack Square in Asheville. Regular museum hours are: Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sunday 1 - 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information please visit or call 828-253-3227.

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