“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.”
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.
“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.