Angelyn Whitmeyer’s Story

In 2019, I came across a photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston that intrigued and fascinated me. It’s a self-portrait, taken in 1896.

After looking for more information about the photographer, I decided to find out just how many women photographers there were in the early 1900s. That opened up a whole new line of research which led to a set of three courses I taught on early American women photographers at the local College for Seniors (associated with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Asheville, NC).

Even while researching women photographers for those courses, I knew I wanted to also develop a course for early photographers in the western North Carolina region. The first step was looking through Stephen Massengill’s book (Photographers in North Carolina: The First Century, 1842-1941). I made a list of photographers from this area and began looking for their work. George Masa was on that list. Searching for his work led me to two important resources:

  • the 1997 essay by William A. Hart, Jr. (“George Masa – The Best Mountaineer” published in May We All Remember Well, Volume 1)
  • the 2002 film by Paul Bonesteel (The Mystery of George Masa)

As I have done with all the photographers I research, I looked on the internet for possible photographs by George Masa which might be in an archive. And that search gave me two results:

  • Buncombe County Special Collections at Pack Library in downtown Asheville
  • Ewart M. Ball Collection at D. H. Ramsey Library on the UNC-A campus

After studying the online listings for Pack Library’s collection, I learned quite a few postcards had been made from original Masa prints. (Kudos and gratitude to both Zoe Rhine at Pack Library and Jami Daniels of The Daniels Group for their research.) I decided to collect those postcards since they were tangible items I could use in a future class on WNC photographers.

I realized no one had created any kind of catalogue raisonné of George Masa’s work. In fact, his negatives and most of his photographic work were generally viewed as “lost.” I decided to create a database of Masa’s photographs as well as any subsequent uses of his images. This would be something useful, not only to me, but to anyone interested in Masa’s work.

As more items were located, the Database grew. While studying the online photographs from the Ball Collection’s Finding Aid, I knew I wanted to see some of these negatives in person. When I made significant and thrilling discoveries within the Ball Collection, I wanted to share them with other people. Since that first visit, I have returned countless times to look at negatives, to document my findings, and to view prints held in other collections at Ramsey Library.

I have also made numerous visits to Pack Library. Again, I wanted to see the negatives in their collection as well as the prints which had been donated. Library staff graciously permitted me to scan the prints which enhanced the Photo Description Sheets I was creating in tandem with the Database.

Each step along this path led to another archive or another knowledgeable person. Gradually, the large gaps in the numerical sequence of photos began to fill in. Some of those gaps were reduced to smaller-sized holes. Even some of the holes have now been filled. Each find brought a sense of relief—another piece located. Sometimes the find provided a photograph number for a previously unnumbered image. That, in turn, confirmed other intuited selections as being Masa’s work.

I suspected Masa photographed more than mountain views and waterfalls. The located photos in the Database confirm just how much more he photographed: residences, theatre postings of upcoming movies, commercial and industrial buildings, summer camps, downtown Asheville from both Beaucatcher and Sunset Mountain, wildflowers, cities and towns in the region, residential developments, a ginseng harvester, log cabins, visiting celebrities, engineering projects, etc.

Having driven many auto miles and hiked in a variety of locations in western North Carolina, I felt a strong connection with George Masa and his companions on those wilderness expeditions—particularly while I transcribed his journal entries and connected his short notes with the photographs he took during each trip in the mountains.

I continue to marvel at Masa’s ability to carry the heavy camera, tripod and film as he hiked this region or traveled by train or auto to Georgia and South Carolina on assignments.

When I look at George Masa’s still photographs, I consider how Masa selected what he wanted in the scene and just what might have been left outside that framed view. And I notice how people appear in a scene as part of the ordinary, every day activity around a residence or commercial building.

Sometimes I find myself looking at a scene and imagining how George Masa, or Frances Benjamin Johnston, might have chosen to frame and photograph the view.

September 28, 2023

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