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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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‘Our Mr. Matsura’: Clark County filmmaker developing project on Washington photographer

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Vancouver filmmaker Beth Harrington is working on a documentary about Frank Matsura, pictured in the photo display next to her.
Vancouver filmmaker Beth Harrington is working on a documentary about Frank Matsura, pictured in the photo display next to her. (Contributed by Beth Harrington) Photo Gallery

Everybody in Okanogan called him Frank. Just Frank. Some still do, although they never met him.

Photographer Frank Matsura’s charisma must have been magical, Vancouver filmmaker Beth Harrington said. He not only seems to have been everyone’s friend, he even got away with some eyebrow-raising mischief in his portraits: dolling up his subjects, bending their genders, even insinuating his costumed self into their scenes and engaging in a little photo-playacting.

That would have been extraordinary enough for a native of rural Washington. But Matsura was an obvious foreigner — a Japanese immigrant — in the first decade of the 1900s, a time when local prejudice against Asians of all stripes was intense, Harrington said.

Harrington’s documentary work-in-progress, “Our Mr. Matsura,” explores the unlikely story of how Frank Matsura journeyed from Tokyo to Seattle and then to Okanogan, where he apparently so charmed overlapping local communities that he became an institution with all of them.

“He moved fluidly among many different people — whites, tribes, other immigrants,” Harrington said.

Matsura’s name and legend remain alive and well in Okanogan now, Harrington has found during several visits to the area for research and interviews. Many residents there proudly show off their ancestors’ Matsura portraits and call him Frank, like a personal friend. His unique eye provides a humane and insightful look at a transitional time in history: the tail end of frontier days.

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.”

Golden age

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.

“I never expected this story to have so much richness,” Harrington said.

Learning Japanese

She is still researching that story. Harrington has worked intensively with the Okanogan County Historical Society and with archives at Washington State University’s Pullman campus. There are approximately 4,000 known Matsura photographs now, with more occasionally turning up, she said.

One subtly startling aspect of Matsura’s photography is that he seemed to play with his viewers’ heads. He would costume his subjects — and himself, too — in playful, slightly subversive or silly ways to create scenes that seem to test gender, class and race boundaries.

“There’s a lot of that, and he does it with women and men,” said Harrington. “He seems intrigued by playing around with stereotypes. He was jokester, and he put himself inside it, and he never seemed to get in trouble for it.”

She said there’s no greater mystery to the Matsura story than figuring out what he was thinking as he played out these scenarios.

Harrington said she’s not sure if “Our Mr. Matsura” will wind up on public television or in theaters as a feature-length film. She said work on the project started during the pandemic, even as her other efforts slowed down, including “The Musicianer,” a spooky, singing-time-traveler web-TV series featured several times in this newspaper. “The Musicianer” won awards at festivals but never found backing for complete development as a series thanks to the competitive and shrinking world of independent film, Harrington said.

“If it’s bad for documentaries, it’s even worse for independent narrative films,” she said.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harrington has hired researchers who are pursuing Matsura’s story in Japan, and she’s even working on learning the language herself. If another grant comes through, she wants to travel to Japan.

“I’m sure there’s lots more to discover,” she said.