The George Masa mentioned by President Obama in the above video (9:00) was originally born as Masahara Iisuka in Japan in 1882. After his father’s death, he came to the United States to study engineering at the University of California. Although he worked as an engineer in Colorado, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to wash laundry at Grove Park Inn. There he went on mountain tours with the Carolina Mountain Club and fell in love with the area. He became a celebrated photographer, now referred to as the Ansel Adams of the Southern Appalachians, and became BFF with renowned photographer and conservationist Horace Kephart. Masa and Kephart fought tirelessly to make The Great Smoky Mountains National Park a reality. There is a peak in the park named after him, Masa Knob.
Masa is unknown and elusive in American history, yet he has nonetheless caught the attention and imagination of historians and documentary film makers. Though often left out of mention in coverage of this national park, Masa was covered in tandem with Kephart on the Smoky Mountain portion of PBS Ken Burn’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Also, Bonesteel Films made a 90 minute documentary of Masa’s life and maintains a continuous research blog gathering evermore information about Masa’s life and accomplishments.
A tireless photographer, Masa was known for having walked practically every inch of the Smoky Mountains, waiting hours for the right moment and lighting to snap a photo. And he was a prolific photographer, although often his photos were credited to other people. Today, his photos are on display at the Asheville Art Museum and collections of photography and documents about him are held at the West Carolina University.
He died in 1933 of influenza just before The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, with no family but many friends and admirers, but clearly, his legacy lives on.