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 and history 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.