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One Frame at a Time: The story of photographer Frank S. Matsura

By Dee Camp

Special to Okanogan Living

A little more than 110 years ago, Frank S. (Sakae) Matsura, a Japanese native of slight build, dropped dead while running an errand for the town marshal.

Matsura, age 39 at his death June 26, 1913, photographed the people, events and scenery of Okanogan County for 10 years, from his arrival in Conconully in 1903 to his death in Okanogan. He is buried in the Okanogan City Cemetery.

According to Judge William Compton Brown, Matsura’s friend and an Okanogan County jurist and historian, it may not have been generally known that Frank had tuberculosis. His attempt to run to notify a business owner of a broken window resulted in the hemorrhage that killed him.

Matsura left behind a collection of some 2,500 photographic negatives, hundreds of which are in the care of the Okanogan County Historical Society. Most reside in the archives at Washington State University.

Brown was in charge of probating Matsura’s estate and ended up in possession of the negatives.

Matsura carried his huge camera - equipped with glass plate negatives - into the nooks, crannies and overviews of Okanogan County just after the 20th century began. He photographed scenery, crops, flora and fauna, people and activities of those people.

Matsura's collection captures daily life, people, street scenes, buildings, community celebrations, and farming and mining activities. It includes portraits of Indian people, orchardists, laborers building the railroad and loading sternwheelers, cowboys, families and everyone in between.

He produced souvenir post cards, seasonal post cards, views and post card albums, and offered developing services for plates or film, printing from negatives, custom picture frames, portrait work, scenic views, stamp photos (popular at the time), photo enlargements and photos on pillow tops.

His images give a view of life in the early 20th century which otherwise would have been lost.

As the photographer hired by the U.S. Reclamation Service to document building of the Okanogan Project for irrigation, he even bore the heavy camera, which was accompanied by a tripod and heavy wooden case, inside the dam under construction in Conconully to document the workings there.

Matsura photographed the Okanogan at a time of change. Automobiles were arriving on the scene, yet horses and horse-drawn wagons were a more common means of transportation. Stern-wheeled steamers still plied the Okanogan and Columbia rivers, yet Matsura photographed the first train to reach Okanogan.

He also was active in the life of the community, showing up in some of his own pictures with a musical instrument in one of the bands of the day. Many of his photos are humorous, capturing bachelors in town, people mugging the camera and other situations.

Matsura was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1873, to a Samurai family. They originated in Hirado, Nagasaki, where European ships first arrived at their Hirado port, followed by the introduction of Christianity, according to Japanese journalist Tatsuo Kurihara, who wrote extensively about Matsura and visited Okanogan County many times.

In the early Edo period (1600s), Frank Matsura’s ancestors left the Hirado Matsura clan and one became a feudal lord of the Tokugawa Shogunate system in Edo (Tokyo). There they first lived in Nihonbashi, then moved to Mukoujima on the other side of the Sumidagawa River, where Frank Matsura eventually was born.

His father had health problems and passed away, following his wife, when Frank was 9, according to Kurihara. Matsura and his three sisters were separated, with Frank staying with the Okami family after the age of 14 or 15.

After elementary school, Frank was sent to work as an assistant clerk at the private Shoei school and Shirogane Church, where his uncle Kiyomichi Okami was a principal. Frank taught himself in his spare time, according to Kurihara.

Kumaji Kimura, the church pastor, had studied for 13 years in Chicago prior to his assignment and it is assumed that Frank was able to learn English and photography from him, according to Kurihara’s research.

Matsura arrived in Conconully in 1903, when he answered an ad for a cook’s helper and laundry man in Conconully’s Hotel Elliott. It is believed he came to the United States in 1901 and may have lived for a time in Seattle and Alaska before arriving in Conconully with his camera equipment.

He took photographs, which he developed in the laundry when he was not on duty.

In 1907, he gave up the hotel job and set up his photographic shop on First Avenue in the newly incorporated city of Okanogan. He and Brown, the first city attorney, became friends.

Brown was among the friends in whom Matsura confided about his tuberculosis diagnosis, but the photographer remained healthy and energetic for some time, according to Brown. He was sick off and on in 1912 and the next year sold much of his store’s inventory.

Still, his sudden death came as a shock.

His funeral attracted more than 300 Indian and pioneer mourners.

“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,” The Okanogan Independent wrote June 20, 1913.

“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.”

The paper reported that Matsura “was always on the job.”

Whenever anything happened, Matsura was there with his camera to record the event.

“He has done more to advertise Okanogan city and valley than any other individual,” the article continued. “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.”

Matsura’s photographic negatives were preserved by Brown. Most of the glass plate negatives were donated to the WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections division, which catalogued the images and placed many on its digital archives Web page.

Several more boxes of negatives were discovered in Brown’s garage after his death in 1963 and were donated to the Okanogan County Historical Society by Eva Wilson, Brown’s longtime caregiver, at the suggestion of Brown’s judicial successor, Judge Joseph Wicks.

Over the years, Matsura’s legacy faded, until the 1980s when Bellingham author JoAnn Roe wrote a book, “Frank Matsura: Frontier Photographer,” that recounted his life and reprinted many of his photos.

Within a couple years, Japanese television shot a documentary about him in Okanogan County and since then, several more books have been published about Matsura and television specials produced. Three of his photographs were included in the Smithsonian

Institution’s “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” traveling exhibit several years ago.

Conconully’s Matsura Park commemorates him, as do several photographic murals affixed to buildings in Okanogan. Several events were held in 2013 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death.

Matsura prints may be viewed at the Okanogan County Historical Society’s Wilson Research Center, located in the museum complex adjacent to Legion Park in Okanogan. Washington State University's Frank S. Matsura Image Collection can be viewed online at♦



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