Our Mr. Matsura

Our Mr. Matsura,

a feature documentary-in-progress, is the story of photographer Frank Matsura who journeyed from his native Japan to live in rural Washington State in the early 1900s. The son of a samurai, orphaned at a young age, Matsura was raised in Tokyo in the early Meiji Era, emigrated to Seattle as a young man and eventually made his way to Okanogan County, Washington. There he embedded himself in a community of Native people and homesteaders, including cowboys, ranchers, miners, fruit growers, shopkeepers, small business owners and other local movers and shakers. In the short time he had in the Okanogan, he became one of the area’s leading photo-chroniclers and, arguably, its most beloved citizen.

Matsura created a body of work that transcended mere documentation of his adopted home. He depicted, with obvious warmth and personal connection, the diverse peoples of North Central Washington State. He also produced a great volume of playful, often unconventional self-portraits. In addition, he often extended this creative exploration into surprising visual collaborations with area people that frequently played with costumes and gender roles.

More than 2500 Matsura photos survive today.  Much of his portfolio is a striking departure from the staid portraits we associate with early 20th century photography. It expands on and challenges the better-promoted narratives of the American West. The work raises questions about representation and reinvention, life in a transitional time in a so-called “borderland,” gender roles in these spaces, and the very notion of community.

By deeply attaching himself to the people of this region, Matsura offered up remarkable retellings of what he encountered and gave people new ways of thinking about themselves. A century later, the people of this region still take pride in and feel connected to the work he created.

The goal of Our Mr. Matsura is to present a picture of the “frontier” that departs from the existing narrative in popular culture and celebrates the singular contribution of an immigrant artist in America.


Much of Our Mr. Matsura is being filmed in North Central Washington State on the traditional sites of the Twelve Bands that comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation: Chelan, Chief Joseph Band of the Nez Perce, Colville, Entiat, Lakes, Methow, Moses-Columbia, Nespelem, Okanogan, Palus, San Poil and Wenatchi. 

Your support of this project is greatly appreciated and is tax-deductible.

Produced in Association with the Center for Independent Documentary