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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Frank S. Matsura: Portraits from the Borderlands photo exhibit to open at the MAC

Photographer Frank Sakae Matsura spent less than a decade in northern Washington state in the early 20th century but left an unforgettable visual legacy of the Okanogan River Valley.

Matsura, born in Japan in 1873, grew up in Tokyo. His family, from a line of samurai warriors, was aristocratic but he was orphaned and raised by an aunt and uncle, who taught him English at a school they started.

At some point, he was trained to use cameras and process photographs, and his prospects changed.

It’s not clear why, but Matsura left Japan in his 20s, and traveled to the Seattle area, and he briefly visited Alaska. In 1903, he answered a newspaper ad for a cook’s helper in the Elliott Hotel in Conconully, Washington, and stepped off a stagecoach in a frontier area where farmers were planting orchards, workers were building an irrigation dam and small towns were popping up wherever settlers put down roots.

While working at the hotel, Matsura also snapped photos and processed them in the hotel laundry.

Around 1907, Matsura opened a two-room photography studio in the town of Okanogan, where he did portrait sessions, sold postcards, novelty photos and scenic pictures. The diminutive man mostly used a 5-by-7 view camera to document the people and landscape of the Okanogan Valley for several years, creating an impressive portfolio of work that is still treasured today for the depth and breadth of the subject matter and the detail of the photos.

Washington State University art professor Michael Holloman, who is also an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, has edited a group of Matsura’s portraits of American Indian neighbors into a new exhibit called “Frank S. Matsura: Portraits from the Borderland” which opens Saturday at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Holloman has a long interest in Indian art and in Matsura’s work. He realized that Matsura’s Indian portraits captured something special: a wide range of candid and posed photographs of members of the dozen tribes that had been combined onto the Colville reservation, and whose extended families still live on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the Okanogan Valley.

Holloman brought on Anne-Claire Mitchell to help assemble and document displays, funded by the Art Bridges foundation.

Holloman asked Tisa Matheson, the curator of the American Indian Collection at the MAC, to select some cultural items from the region’s plateau Indians that were similar to items worn in Matsura’s portraits. Matheson chose a series of beaded gauntlets, bags and vests, which Holloman hopes will bring the black-and-white photos to life.

Holloman also saw that the poses in Matsura’s photos of his Indian friends were more candid, more light-hearted, more collaborative with the subjects in comparison with the work of other frontier photographers, like the more famous Edward S. Curtis, who photographed Indians with the idea that they were about to vanish from existence. Curtis made sober portraits with traditional regalia and headdresses, avoiding anachronisms and modern technology. Matsura’s pictures showed Indigenous peoples in relaxed group poses in a mix of traditional and modern clothing choices.

Matsura’s works included hundreds of playful group pictures with whimsical costumes and characters, including some played by Matsura himself. Matsura also had a “stamp camera” that allowed him to make up to 12 images in a 3-by-4 layout on a single negative, similar to a modern photo booth.

Commercial photographer Dean Davis was asked to scan the 22 images from negatives stored at the Okanogan County Historical Society. He built a small light box to hold the negatives and photographed them at high resolution to transform them into black-and-white prints nearly 3-by-4-feet. Six images in the show were enlarged from prints where the negatives weren’t available. Davis estimated that he spent 60 hours or more at the computer, cleaning up dust and scratches on the digital images before printing them.

Matsura’s busy work life was cut short by his sudden death from tuberculosis in 1913.

By newspaper accounts, he was well-liked by local residents and had been welcomed with his camera into private homes, community gatherings, farms and businesses. He was deeply mourned by more than 300 people at his funeral service.

The Okanogan Independent newspaper wrote, “A shadow of sorrow was cast over the community early in the week by the sudden death on Monday night of Frank S. Matsura, the Japanese photographer who has been a part and parcel of the city ever since its establishment seven years ago. … Although an unpretentious, unassuming, modest little Japanese, Frank Matsura’s place in Okanogan city will never be filled. He was a photographer of fine ability and his studio contains a collection of views that form a most complete photographic history of this city and surrounding country covering a period of seven or eight years. He was always on the job. Whenever anything happened Frank was there with his camera to record the event. He has done more to advertise Okanogan city and valley than any other individual. Furthermore Frank Matsura was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He held the highest esteem of all who knew him. He was one of the most popular men in Okanogan and was known from one end of this vast county to the other.”

Although Matsura’s work was found in homes, public buildings and personal scrapbooks during his working life, after his death, Matsura’s store was boxed up and stored for 40 years or more by a friend, William Compton Brown, an attorney and judge, until they were opened in 1954. After that, a mix of photos and personal papers were given to Washington State University and boxes of plate glass and cellulose nitrate negatives found their way to the Okanogan County Historical Society, where experts are still reviewing them and working to preserve them. Barry George of the Okanogan County Historical Society said unseen Matsura images are still turning up at estate sales and are brought to the OCHS.

Matsura’s work has been reviewed, written about and displayed before. Author JoAnn Roe produced a 1981 photo book “Frank Matsura: Frontier Photographer” which triggered the interest of television, magazine and newspaper outlets in Japan. There was a Japanese language docudrama about Matsura made for television in 1984. The Matsura collection at Washington State University has uploaded more than 1,600 Matsura photos to the WSU Library’s digital collections and can be viewed online. WSU uploaded a large Matsura scrapbook, filled with some of his zany small group and selfie images, along with landscapes of the Okanogan before human activity left its mark. Filmmaker Beth Harrington is working on a feature-length documentary about the frontier cameraman called “Our Mr. Matsura.” Harrington has interviewed many contemporary people talking about their relatives spotted in Matsura photos from a century earlier.

Each story, book and film about Matsura has tried to describe the impact and value of his body of work on this remote valley in northern Washington.

If You Go ‘Frank S. Matsura: Portraits from the Borderland’ When: Saturday through Nov. 26 Where: Northwest Museums of Arts and Culture, 2316 W. First Ave. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with extended hours on the third Thursday of each month. Cost: $12 adults (18+); $10 seniors and college students with ID; $7 children/students (6-17) and free for children 5 and younger and museum members. Info: (509) 456-3931 or