Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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.


  1. Pack Memorial Library now has 14 photographs with Masa number and Elliot Lyman Fisher stamp on back. If you want to view these online, the library's photo collection is here:

    Put "Masa & Fisher" in subject/keyword search and choose "images." If you just search "Masa" you will bring up all of the photographs by Masa or of him.

    Zoe Rhine, NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library

  2. Carl E. Nell ( 3, 2009 at 5:52 PM

    Thanks, Zoe for sharing this documentation and artistry of Masa. I can almost bet that if Fisher claimed many of Masa pix to be his own that there are others out there that have been sold to other parties and are awaiting discovery in other collections. A good bet would be the northeast...Phila., NYC, Boston. Many northeasterners are and have always been enthralled with the south. Just a hunch from a former auctioneer.

  3. A quick Google search of "Elliot Lyman Fisher" turns up some interesting links to publications that reference images credited to Fisher, particularly images of the Great Smoky Mountains, that could possibly be the work of Masa.

    Examples can be seen in The Natural Landscapes of the United States (1950). There's a two page image spanning the scanned PDF's pages 26-27:

    And the frontispiece image for A Study of the Park and Recreation Problem of the United States:

  4. Thanks Ben, you bring up an important issue with E.L. Fisher, which is that a photographer like him who was in the business for a long time produced a lot of photos for a number of clients. His name has comes up on a lot of searches I've done over the years. Some linked to Masa photos others his own. My opinion on these two examples is that the first one "Landscapes" shows an images on page 26 (of the Smokies) that is likely a George Masa originals. Besides the framing and exposure it just 'feels' like a Masa. The one on page 27 is a nice photo but since we have no record of Masa ever traveling to NH I don't think it's one of his. Now Fisher also learned a good bit from looking at Masa photos (that he purchased after Masa's death)... so he very well could have composed the photo himself. I'd have to see the print and what other evidence might be on it to make a better guess.

    The second example looks like a Fisher original. I think it was taken at Chimney Rock in North Carolina. I have not seen this photo in any of Masa's photos of this very popular (and easily accessible) location.

  5. I have two framed photos that I'm curious about. Where do I go to identify them?

    1. I'd be glad to take a look at them and give you my thoughts. A quick trip to the NC room at Pack Library could help. Ask for Zoe.

  6. Hi Paul, it's been quite a while since my days at Friends of the Smokies and your time creating the wonderful documentary on Masa. I live in Asheville now and have meant to visit you (you know how good intentions are, of course), but being a working photographer takes about 25 hours out of a day. Hope you have been well. Here's my question: What percentage, roughly, of Masa's work would you say has been located over these past years, and where are the primary repositories in which it can be found that you know of. I have been writing a quarterly newsletter for the past 10 years, or so, which goes out to my mailing list of about 700. The lead story of my current newsletter is about Masa, and of course, I'm giving a big shout-out to your excellent work. Thanks for any insight you may provide.

    1. Hey Don, great to hear from you and your article. I'd guess (and its a guess) that about 25% of Masa's best/artistic work is 'missing'... This is based on the fact that inventories and low quality prints (in the Great Smokies guide book for instance) reveal many photos that have not been found in actual prints or negatives. Fisher's reprints also show many photos from Masa's last few years that don't exist in archives. Pack Memorial Library in Asheville, UNC-Asheville, Western Carolina University and the Great Smokies National Park archives, and the photo book that Masa gave to Jewell King that Robert Brunk found are now at UNC Chapel Hill archive... those are the primary locations. There are others in private hands, and other library collections. Hope this helps!

  7. Hey Paul, thanks for your note and timely response. I am actually pleasantly surprised that there is not a greater percentage of Masa's work missing and I appreciate very much knowing where the greater part can now be found. I hope to have the newsletter posted to my website by tomorrow evening. Maybe we can get together for coffee/tea. I'll be in Acadia for a couple of weeks and then at Arrowmont for a couple more. Mid-July? Thanks, again, and be well.