Even so, much remains a mystery about him, Harrington said. While he left behind a rich and diverse body of photographic work, with more being discovered all the time, direct evidence of Matsura the person is patchy. He kept diaries as a young man in Japan. But there’s no such record of what he was thinking and doing while living among and photographing the diverse peoples of Okanogan.
“Who was this man who came to mean something to all these people?” Harrington wonders. “Why does this guy have such a huge impact in such a short time? There are still huge gaps in what we know.”
Frank Matsura grew up in a Tokyo family of status and culture during what’s called the Meiji Era, a time of deliberate modernization and openness to foreign influences and technology like photography, the young Matsura’s passion. He was also educated in English and baptized as a Christian, both of which must have helped him when he arrived in the U.S. in 1903 at age 29, Harrington said.
The hotel where Matsura worked in the tiny town of Conconully permitted him to set up a makeshift darkroom in the basement. Eventually he landed in Okanogan, and, incredibly, made himself a household name there.
How did he do that? For one thing, the Frank Matsura Photographic Studio was strategically located near the town ferry dock, Harrington said. When newcomers arrived or relatives reunited, Matsura was right there to offer his services.
“He was meeting a lot of people who came through town and they kept in touch,” Harrington said.
Matsura’s timing was also perfect. It aligned with what’s seen as the golden age of picture postcards, roughly the first decade of the 20th century, which was driven by new photography technology, Rural Free Delivery and a rising middle class that was going places on vacation.
Matsura welcomed everyday Okanogans into his studio — families, workers, newlyweds, babies, tribal people. He also hauled his cameras around town and into the fields.
“He was embedded in the white community but he was also very embraced by the Colville tribe,” Harrington said.
When Matsura died of tuberculosis at the young age of 39, the town was shocked, Harrington said. Tribal people in the area prayed to their ancestors on his behalf, she said.