In 1903, Frank Matsura (1874?-1913), a photographer from Japan, arrives in Conconully, Okanogan County. He begins photographing the scenes, inhabitants, and events of the region while working as a cook's helper in a hotel, and soon becomes a well-known and well-liked resident. By 1907, he opens a photograph studio in the newly incorporated city of Okanogan. The many photographs he makes until his untimely death in 1913 are significant both artistically and historically, providing a unique record of a time of transition on the Washington frontier.
Nothing definite is known of Matsura’s early life in Japan. Even his name is uncertain. Records show that one Sakae Matsuura applied for a Japanese passport in 1901, when he was 27. This may have been Frank Matsura, who when he first arrived used the spelling Matsuura and the middle initial "S." Matsura is thought to have been from an upper class family. He possessed a ceremonial sword, an indication of high social standing in Japan, and he was periodically sent money, apparently from relatives. Matsura may have lived for a time in Seattle and Alaska before he arrived, with his camera equipment, in Conconully.
Arrival in Conconully
In 1903, Jess Dillabough, owner of Conconully’s Hotel Elliott, hired Matsura in Seattle to be a cook’s helper and laundryman in the hotel. Matsura began photographing his new hometown immediately upon his arrival. He took photographs, which he developed in the laundry, whenever he was not on duty. Matsura was outgoing, enjoying parties and dances, and he appeared with his camera at all important Conconully events. The only Japanese American in the town, he was soon well-known and popular with his neighbors.
It was four years before Matsura could give up the hotel job and establish himself as a full-time photographer. In 1907, the year that the city of Okanogan incorporated, Matsura moved to that city and built himself a small two-room shack on 1st Avenue. The front room was the reception area and studio, the darkroom was in back. Matsura met and became friends with William Compton Brown (d. 1963), a young lawyer who went on to become an Okanogan county judge. Years later, Compton recalled climbing a hill outside town with Matsura in May 1907, when the photographer took the first panoramic pictures to be made of Okanogan.
Matsura photographed all aspects of life in and around the new town, including riverboats on the Columbia River, construction of the U.S. Irrigation Project dam at Conconully, apple and peach orchards in the Okanogan valley, stage coaches, schoolchildren, parades, taverns, and drunks. He photographed St. Mary’s Mission on Omak Lake, scenic spots throughout the county, and ranches and the cowboys, both white and Indian, who worked on them. Matsura had good rapport with the Indians of the region and frequently traveled to the Colville reservation, where his friend Bill Muldrow was a surveyor, to photograph the people and the landscape. Many of Matsura’s photos were published in the Okanogan Independent, founded by his friend O. H. Woody.
At first business was slow in the lightly populated area, and at one point Matsura even advertised for a job as a cook. However, he gradually gained recognition for his photography. The Okanogan Commercial Club and later the Great Northern Railway distributed his photos around the country in promotions of the Okanogan region. Some of his photographs of Okanogan County were exhibited at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle. The A-Y-P’s official photographer said Matsura’s photos were the best of all he received from around the state and country.
Soon Matsura’s portrait business was doing so well that he hired two assistants for the Christmas rush. Townspeople, ranch hands, and Indians all sat for pictures. Matsura moved from the back of his store to a small house on two lots that he bought on S2nd Avenue. He planted and tended a large garden, in which he erected swings for the neighborhood children who came to visit.
Matsura told friends he had tuberculosis, but they found it hard to believe because he seemed so healthy and energetic. However, he was sick on and off in 1912, and in 1913 sold much of the stock of his store because he could not keep it up. Still, his sudden death on June 16, 1913, came as a shock. That night the town marshal found the window of a store open and asked Matsura to inform the store owner. Matsura ran to do so, but as he neared the owner’s home, he was taken with a fit of coughing. He sought help at the home of his friend Bill Muldrow, but collapsed and died shortly thereafter.
The Japanese consul had no information on Matsura’s relatives, and he was buried in Okanogan, in the Masonic cemetery on a benchland overlooking the valley. Matsura’s funeral, held in the town auditorium because the church could not accommodate the crowd of more than 300 Indian and white mourners, was the largest in Okanogan to that point. Shortly after Matsura’s death, the Okanogan Independent wrote:
"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 ... He was always on the job. Whenever anything happened Frank was there with his camera to record the event ... He has done more to advertise Okanogan city and valley than any other individual" (Frank Matsura, 21).
Matsura’s photographic prints and negatives went to his friend William Brown. Years later, Judge Brown gave many of the prints to the Washington State University archives, which has made a collection of Matsura’s images available on the internet. Following Brown’s death in 1963, several boxes of Matsura’s glass plate negatives were found in Brown’s garage and turned over to the Okanogan County Historical Society. Many of those have been printed and are published in the book Frank Matsura, Frontier Photographer by JoAnn Roe.