George Masa, born as Masahara Izuka in 1881, was pursuing a career in engineering at Meige University when a Methodist missionary converted him to Christianity and introduced him to the United States. The twenty-year-old youth stole passage on a ship and registered as George Masa at the University of California, where he majored in mining engineering. He worked in Colorado as an engineer and in 1915 came to Asheville as an employee of Grove Park Inn. There he fell in love with the mountains and developed a passionate interest in photography.
An avid hiker, he was also a perfectionist who would hike for twenty miles to remote spots and wait for hours for the perfect photo. Consummate engineer that he was, he mapped hundreds of uncleared trails in the Southern Appalachian Mountains with a contraption he'd built to measure distance. Removing the seat and back wheel from a bicycle, he attached an odometer to the front wheel which he pushed ahead as he walked, a bandana around his head to catch the perspiration, for he walked at a swift gait.
Masa was taking pictures for an article by Horace Kephart in "National Geographic" when Frank Cook invited him to Highlands in 1929. It cost Cook more than he had anticipated, for Masa stayed two weeks, refusing to take a picture unless the light was exactly right. He photographed 97 scenes of Highlands and its surroundings. Some of these he incorporated into "Land of the Sky," a promotional booklet published in 1930.
In the eighteen years that he had practiced his craft, he earned the unrivaled honor of being called "the greatest photographer of the Great Smoky Mountains." Masa's ending was pitiable, for with all his talent and fame, including his role as founder of the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club, he died of influenza at age fifty-one on June 21, 1933, penniless.