Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New George Masa letters found

“Alice: It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”

-Alice In Wonderland

The 'mystery' of George Masa just keeps getting more mysterious. Over the past five years or so I've been aware of the possible existence of some letters written in Japanese written by or to George Masa. To make a long story short, some of them were finally found (special thanks to Edie Robinson) and have now been translated by my trusted friend Fusako Krummel. I only wish translation would have made the letters easier to understand. She and I have enjoyed theorizing about the meaning of the letters, none of which are in their complete form. Some of them concern a Japanese friend of Masa's who committed suicide largely due to his poor financial management of a group of immigrants money he was responsible, including Masa's.

The letters speak to Masa's very close association with a number of Japanese friends whom he stayed in frequent communication with, at least for his first few years of being in the U.S.. These letters suggests answers to some of the previously unknown information about Masa, but, in classic Masa fashion, nothing about these letter clear up the mysteries definitively, in fact, they pose more questions than they answer with allusions to Masa's own past, two new names that Masa uses for himself and a story told in one letter that seems to be a method Masa was using to describe his own childhood as he describes the the life of his deceased friend. I'm telling you... its complicated.

I'll leave you with this little sample of poetry, probably written by Masa in one of the letters:

Bathing in the sun and shown by moonlight,
Blown by the Autumn wind, showered by the summer rain,
And the winter mist, the poet sings the wonder of nature,
The history of a billion years, dreaming another spring to come.
Life is short, already half gone.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tribute to Bernard Elias

A few months ago the mountains lost a good friend and so did I. I was somewhere out of town and missed the news that Bernard Elias had died at the age of 91 until today when the barber we share informed me of the sad news. His physical size and his obituaries were understated, but the man's life and legacy were huge.

He came into my office many times while I was working on The Mystery of George Masa with ideas, photographs, maps and stories from his life, including one about how Masa took his photo when he was a boy standing in front of his Biltmore Forest home. His visits to my office were always jovial and (despite ending my productivity for an hour or more) inspiring.

He was a link to the past that I was trying to illuminate. He was a veteran in the Navy and in photographic excellence. He was above all a gentleman.

Happy trails Bernard. I hope you and Masa and countless other friends are exploring the great unknown.

I have a bunch of new info and news to post. I hope to get to it soon. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

George Masa's story in Ken Burn's film

On September 30th, 2009 George Masa, his story and some of his photos will reach more people at one time than ever before. In the broadcast of Ken Burn's new documentary series America's Best Idea: The National Parks, Masa's role in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be described and his unique story told. For those of you searching for info about Masa please read the first post to this blog back in June, and see the other material on www.georgemasa.com for additional info and a method for purchasing the 90 documentary; The Mystery of George Masa.

This blog is here to field questions, theories or gather additional information about Masa. I'll continue to do whatever I can to solve some of the enduring 'mysteries'.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

George Masa, and his link to a dubious 'Producer'.

I received a question from Louisa Trott of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound asking about additional information on George Masa. With the help of Zoe Rhine we've told her what we know (see below). It seems Masa was mentioned by a producer who showed up in Knoxville to shoot a 'movie' of sorts, and Masa was hired as his cameraman. This is a curious story that reflects on the booming state of the economy in the area during the roaring 1920s. One thing I find interesting is the fact that he sold sponsors to be included in the film, whats called 'integrated advertising' today was used in films here in the south back in 1925!

We've known for some time that Masa was a newsreel photographer and had cinema equipment, but the fact that he was involved in shooting motion pictures, at this time and of this type is new. Masa enjoyed new challenges and was always interested in making a buck, so none of this surprises me. Finding these films would be great, they would be important documents of this period.

Here is a portion of her original request. Followed by two responses from Zoe Rhine at Asheville's Pack Library.

Dear Mr Bonesteel,

We're writing an article about itinerant filmmakers in East Tennessee during the early part of last century. One in particular, J.B. "Slim" Brolund, came to Knoxville in 1925 to make a movie using local people as actors, with funding procured from local businesses who would pay to be 'advertised' in the film.
In July 1925, a Knoxville Sentinel article reports that:

"Work is scheduled to begin July 27. [...] Mr Brolund prides himself on procuring the services of George Massa [sic], of Pathe News, for camera man. Mr Massa is the only motion picture photographer who has ever been allowed to "shoot" a set in "Biltmore," the estate of Mrs George K Vanderbilt. He is the official Pathe News camera man for all of North and South Carolina."

Brolund also states that he has been in Asheville making a movie entitled "Land of the Sky" (with George Masa?).

To cut a long story short, it seems that Brolund was most likely a con-artist. The Sentinel covers every aspect of the making of the movie - "A Knoxville Romance" - practically every day right up to the point where Brolund is reported to be delayed in NY processing and editing the film (you can practically hear the penny drop!). But on the day that the film is scheduled to premiere in Knoxville ... not a word is mentioned in the newspaper, and nothing thereafter. We think Brolund may have carried out this scam in other towns across the country - - there are accounts of him in St Petersburg, FA and Chicago in 1926.

So, we were wondering if you had ever come across any mention of George Masa's involvement with any of the above films. If he was a Pathe News cameraman, he would certainly have had the right equipment for the job. Have you ever come across any movie references/material related to Masa? Any knowledge of the Biltmore piece? That was probably for Pathe News.

Zoe's response:

We have an "Asheville Citizen" newspaper article, Aug. 17, 1924 titled "George Masa Opens Biltmore Studio." It reads, in part, "Opening of the Asheville-Biltmore Film Co. by George Masa, formerly with the Plateau Studio, was announced yesterday. Mr. Masa's new studio is a t 3 Plaza, Biltmore, but he will also maintain uptown offices at 24 Broadway.
Mr. Masa, who is an expert photographer, has been in Asheville a good many years and has specialized in the past in commercial work, still and moving Pictures. This work he will continue in the future, and he will also continue as Pathe News representative for North and South Carolina, supplying that news film syndicate with all pictorial news from these two states.
The new studios are outfitted with the newest equipment, adequate in every detail to the latest requirements, he said. . . "
We also have a copy of an ad in a magazine, "Diversion" for 12/24/1921 which is for Plateau Studios with his name at bottom and it says, "Photography in all its branches still or animated."
We have a 1931 Asheville City Directory where he has a large ad for his business The Asheville Photo Co. and it reads: "Commercial Photography/Photo finishing for amateurs; movies for Commercial Purposes."
We do not have any articles mentioning his filming in Knoxville in 1925.
The film Paul mentioned, The Conquest of Canaan, 1921, is listed in the book, "The North Carolina Filmography" by Jenny Henderson and she lists that George Masa did the stills. We have a partial recording of that film on DVD. [Brolund is not listed in her index.] UNC at Asheville, Ramsey Library Special Collections has some of these images.
As I am here going through our files, I was about to put away copies of articles regarding "The Asheville Motion Pictures Corporation." We have coverage beginning 4/17/1925. The last article is a group shot of the cast of a movie recently made in Asheville, and I stopped to read the names, and it includes J.B. Brolund. So I've stopped and am sending on to you what I can make of it. The first ad lists a board of directors and lines like, "It is your civic duty to support this enterprise. 5/31 reports the work of filming "An Asheville Romance." "J.B. Brolund, who wrote the scenario and will direct the production, will play comedy parts." Then all of the scenes are described while naming the local people who will also be in it. A full page ad of 5/31/1925 appears in the Asheville Times newspaper. "Aiding N. C's Progress" and "Why the Public is Asked to Invest." The photo I mentioned is dated 6/30/1925 and another photo appears 7/1/1925 of the cast
and includes Brolund. That is all the coverage we have in the file. Curious, it is. I will try to follow this up and see if I can find out if the movie was actually played or what.
Zoe Rhine,

North Carolina Reference Desk
Buncombe County Public Libraries

And then this from Zoe.

Well, the film was shown in Asheville for three days. When I read the plot of the film, I thought, "Oh brother!" and later reviews confirm my hunch. ""Though primarily an advertising stunt of particular interest to merchants, it is also unparalleled as a heralder of the beauty and progressiveness of Asheville itself..." The end of this article of 7/5/1925 from the Asheville Citizen reads: Mr. Brolund goes next to Knoxville, Tenn., where he will undertake the same plan for the Knoxville Sentinel. From there he goes to Charlotte and thence to Greenville, S.C. Inquiries have been received from five states which have heard of the project. George Masa, local photographer, made the pictures and will travel with Mr. Brolund." The gist of the story is that a young man receives a large inheritance the day after he is attracted to a young woman, whose father pulls her away, as he is a poor man. The next day, being suddenly rich, they are permitted to marry so they go on a shopping spree which includes a neighborhood here just being developed and they pick out a lot, and then they go to a construction firm who will build their house. Because of this, many merchants are shown in the film, I believe 22. It seems obvious that besides whatever the newspaper kicked in, the businesses shown were also the ones putting up money. During the showing, some businesses ran ads, such as one prominent hardware store ran an ad saying something like, "while you watch "The Asheville Romance" let it remind you where to go buy your hardware." That was one of the particular businesses that the couple went to for hardware for their new house. I looked through the week after the showing and did not find any more articles about how worthy or unworthy that Asheville felt the adventure turned out to be.
The whole thing reminds me a lot of a book in our collection that was published the year before,
Azure-lure : a romance of the mountains : souvenir of Asheville and western North Carolina which has a terrible romantic plot but which has some of the best photographs in it of anything we have, including the only documentation of the interiors of hotels that we have.
That said, we realize we need to pursue all avenues to see if there are any existing copies of this film, as it would be invaluable as a historical document.
I am noticing that the first ad that appeared for the Asheville Motion Pictures Corportation says that "Hamilton Smith and Arthur A. Cadwell, experienced producers of Smith-Cadwell Productions, have been engaged by the Asheville Motion Pictures Co. to produce a series of feature motion pictures in Asheville."
It seems likely that the newspaper would have retained a copy of the film, which is at least a place to start.
Again, let us know if you'd like for us to send you copies of all or any of this Asheville coverage. I'm wondering if perhaps Asheville was his first adventure, and was used as a promotion by Brolund in other cities?
One of the articles mentions that he has lived mostly in California, but was now planning on moving to Asheville. I did not find him anywhere in the 1920 or 1930 census.
Thanks so much for directing our attention to this film.
Zoe Rhine

North Carolina Reference Desk

Buncombe County Public Libraries

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Researching George Masa

Back in 1999 I began a research and production effort that led to the making of The Mystery of George Masa documentary film. With it's release in 2002 to the PBS system the 86 minute film aired in about 40% of the United States. This year, a one-hour version will be released to the PBS system to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Masa's inclusion in Ken Burns' new film The National Parks: America's Best Idea

My full length film is, to date, the most accurate and extensive collection of research about Masa and his life. While it contains only a fraction of the information that we have on Masa, it does reveals a broad overview of his life, introduces the discoveries that the film made and also poses the most interesting questions that are still unresolved. Bill Hart Jr.'s fine article George Masa: The Best Mountaineer. In May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History & Cultures of Western North Carolina, vol. 1. Edited by R. S. Brunk, was the starting off point for our film research. It is accurate, informative and vital for anyone doing research on Masa.

With the expectation that many people will hear about George Masa for the first time, I'm making this blog so that people that are interested in researching the story or who come across relevant information about the significant mysteries that exist about Masa have a place to contact me, and post this information for others.

Here is a list of what I consider the most important questions that surround the story of George Masa.

-Proof of his life before he arrived in Asheville, NC in December 1914. Evidence of someone named Masahara Izuka, George Masa, (or a combination of those names)arriving into and/or living and working in the United States between 1900 and 1915. He was known to have traveled from San Francisco to New Orleans to Asheville, NC, and also to have spent time in Washington DC, Sulpher Springs, VA, and Denver, Colorado.

-Photos by George Masa (please see the next post for photo ID clues). Thousands of his photos are missing. Many were sold after his death to a photographer named Elliot Lyman Fisher who lived in Asheville, NC until the mid-1950's and then died in Florida in 1968. There is no trace of a single Masa image from the thousands Fisher bought.

-Connection to, or evidence of any surviving family members in Japan. This will be the topic of a future post, identifying what we know about Masa's family in Japan. Due to the time that has passed, language differences and sheer number of people on the planet, this is perhaps the most unlikely mystery to be solved.

These are just the top 3, I will add more to this soon.

Thanks for reading.

Identification of George Masa Photographs

One of the most asked questions I get is: How do you know what is a George Masa Photo?

I'm going to give you the short answer and some visuals to help. These are not definitive, but helpful.

If you are looking at an original, intact photos, most (but not all) have some identification on them. Usually in a lower corner. The strongest indicator of a photo by George Masa is his numbering system and his handwriting. Here is an example.

This is an example of a photo that was taken by Masa sometime between 1920 and his death in 1933. Based on the numbering system and its relation to some events he photographed and correspondence where he cited numbers we can roughly 'date' a photo.

Another sign that Masa may have taken the photo would be a stamp on the back of one of his companies, Asheville Photo Company was one of his longer lasting companies, and in the early 1930's he often stamped the back of photos with that stamp.

Another sign of a possible Masa photo is the handwritten ID of Plateau Studios.
Masa ran this business in the early 1920's and then sold it around 1925. The name was used after he sold the business, but the distinctive sign (sometimes with a number, sometimes without) seems to be only from the period when Masa was the primary photographer at work.

As I mentioned, there are other indicators of a possible Masa photo, subject matter, quality and composition are other indicators. Since these are less precise and harder to describe I'm not going to elaborate. But feel free to post photos for me and other Masa researchers to evaluate. This is one reason I'm starting this blog.

Finally, in my next post I'll talk about Elliot Lyman Fisher, and how his stamp (shown below) may connect us to photos of Masa that are not labeled with any other 'Masa' brand.