A Wild Vision
Top: George Masa's 1929 photograph from the south face of Satulah Mountain, elevation 4,543 feet, overlooking north Georgia. Photo courtesy of the Highlands Historical Society.

The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Acclaimed author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

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George Masa’s Wild Vision: A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina, Hub City Press, 2022

In the opening pages of his beautifully designed and deeply felt new book about Japanese photographer and conservationist George Masa, author Brent Martin makes two things clear. 

First, much of Masa’s life remains a mystery, especially his early years in the United States from 1906 to 1915. Second, if you are looking for a complete biography of Masa, then this might not be the book for you. 

Martin, a conservationist and outdoor educator who lives in western North Carolina, points to earlier resources that delve into what little is known of Masa’s history, especially 2019’s Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, which, while it contains the most complete published information about Masa, is primarily about Kephart, the man considered to be the father of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Unfortunately, and probably unfairly, it is as Kephart’s sidekick that Masa is best known. By the time Masa arrived in Asheville in 1916, Kephart was already a nationally known mountaineer and author, having published his first book Camping and Woodcraft in 1906. But as parallel forces driving the creation of the national park in the 1920s, these two men accomplished something together that Kephart could not have accomplished alone. It was Masa’s breathtaking photographs that introduced citizens to landscapes they could never visit on their own—places that are still so wild that Martin, our intrepid author and seasoned mountaineer, had difficulty reaching them while researching his book. 

So given what Martin’s book is not, the question becomes what it is. I would argue that the book is most clearly a pictorial guide to Masa’s unparalleled portraits of the southern Appalachian landscape and a collection of his ephemera, including trip reports for the Carolina Mountain Club, hand-drawn portrayals of watersheds, and Masa’s glossary of Cherokee flora and fauna that he translated into English. 

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Masa's 1929 photograph of Dry Falls, also known as Cullasaja Falls, where people could walk under the Cullasaja River and remain basically dry. Photo courtesy of the Highlands Historical Society.

It is also a study of how deeply intertwined and inseparable the strands of Masa’s life were. He was a photographer, an active member of outdoor-recreation social circles, and a conservationist who used his art and friendships to protect the wildest spaces in southern Appalachia. 

Finally, the book is Martin’s attempt to understand how Masa accomplished so much in such a short time—against the forces of anti-Asian sentiment, the economic struggles of the Great Depression, and the untimely death of Kephart, his closest friend and fellow visionary.  

In trying to understand Masa’s vision, Martin follows in his footsteps, from the peak of Mount Mitchell to the wilderness of Three Forks to the continued economic and environmental evolution of the Highlands Plateau. In these travels, Martin’s book achieves its full power, especially when he draws stark connections between the America Masa knew and its contemporary moment. 

Masa likely arrived in San Francisco from Japan in either 1906 or 1907, shortly after the city’s Asiatic Exclusion League was founded in 1905. Anti-Asian sentiment would follow Masa to Asheville, where he worked as a bellhop and valet at the Grove Park Inn, and where the inn’s owner contacted the FBI over his worries that one of his best employees was a Japanese spy. 

By 1917, Masa had begun dabbling in photography, and until his death in 1933 he forged a career as a photographer despite cultural and financial challenges at nearly every turn. For example, when Masa traveled to Mount Mitchell for promotional work, he entered a park that North Carolina’s state legislature had deemed “whites only.” And when he traveled to Stone Mountain on his way to a meeting to decide the Appalachian Trail route, he was perhaps the last photographer to capture the unblemished granite face of the mountain the Ku Klux Klan had long used as a meeting place, where a relief of Confederate leaders would soon appear in an enduring homage to our nation’s legacy of white supremacy.

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Masa's photograph of postmaster W. C. Alexander handing Judge W. C. Bennett a letter in 1925. It was known as the "world's smallest post office" at 6 feet by 5.5 feet. Photo courtesy of the Highlands Historical Society.

As Martin explores many of these landscapes, he connects the anti-Asian sentiment of the first half of the 20th century to the rise of anti-Asian violence in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. He walks trails in the Smokies as Black Lives Matter protestors rally across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and is struck by the diversity in race and ethnicity that he encounters in the woods—something completely unimaginable in Masa’s time.

In chronicling Masa’s waning photography career in the early days of the Great Depression, he cannot help but draw a parallel to the scary, unsteady times of the early pandemic.  

While Martin offers us a portrait of Masa’s ability to persevere, he also explores Masa’s artistry in capturing some of the early 20th century’s most brilliant photographs in a truly unforgiving landscape. (Fifteen years after Masa’s death, Ansel Adams also traveled to the Smokies, an experience he denounced as “devilishly hard” that yielded only four successful photographs.) 

Martin contends that Masa might have been following a long history of Japanese photography that makes explicit use of light entering through an aperture, what Martin explains as a “spiritually opportune moment of illumination that could be filled with harmonious and awe-inspiring nature.” Masa’s photographs that are included in the book make it easy to sense how he took advantage of nature’s opportune moments.

George Masa’s Wild Vision: A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina is both a compendium of Masa’s work and a contemporary preservationist’s laudable and successful attempt to stand in Masa’s moment and connect it to our own. As Martin makes clear, the true mystery of Masa is not who he was, but how he was able to do what he did. This book is a testament to his dogged determinism, and to the eloquence and urgency of his vision. 

Read Wiley Cash’s Q&A with author Brent Martin here.

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Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.