The Mystery of George Masa

MasaIn the early 1900s an obscure Japanese man came to North Carolina and championed the Great Smoky Mountains National Park through his photography. Shortly after his death, his name was almost completely rubbed out of history. This program uncovers the story behind this nearly forgotten man in The Mystery of George Masa.

George Masa, or Masahara Izuka, came to the mountains of North Carolina in 1915. His name was changed shortly after his arrival, and the mountains he adopted as his own were forever changed as a result of his work.

The Mystery of George Masa chronicles the life of George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who became well known in Asheville, North Carolina, as a great photographer, hiker and explorer. During the 1920s and 1930s, he was instrumental in the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the mapping and building of the Appalachian Trail. But his mysterious past, his untimely death and the passage of time have clouded our knowledge and appreciation of George Masa. Until now. The Mystery of George Masa recaptures many interesting details about Masa’s life, work and influential friends, as well as his lasting impact on the preservation movement.

Told through interviews with a few living acquaintances, historians’ accounts, Masa’s own words from personal letters and journals, subtle re-creations, and a wonderful collection of the subject’s own photographs, The Mystery of George Masa uncovers many of the secrets that surround this immigrant's story.

The film highlights Masa's advancement from a valet at the Grove Park Inn to a respected photographer, his treks through the mountains, his close friendship with photographer Horace Kephart and his painful grief after Kephart's death. His constant financial struggles and final illness foreshadow the tragedy that this genius would eventually be forgotten.

While he is called "the Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains" by photographer and historian Gil Leebrick, Masa’s work is largely unknown. For a variety of reasons, after Masa’s death, his photos were credited to other people. The Mystery of George Masa takes an intimate journey into this unique photographer's life and the Southern Appalachian Mountains that were his subject.