Johsel Namkung, the Northwest’s preeminent landscape photographer of the latter 20th century, died July 22 at age 94, leaving a legacy of finely crafted, meticulously composed images that capture the rhythmic patterns of the natural world. Namkung thought like a painter and pushed film to its expressive limits, distilling the landscape to a swirl of reeds sprouting in water or scattered mounds of frozen grass.
An extraordinary technician, Namkung spent a week working with Ansel Adams in 1958 to learn his zone system for controlling the tonal range of a negative. But the scenery most photographers point their cameras at didn’t interest him: “I try to discover something so ordinary people don’t pay attention,” he once said.
Instead, the abstract paintings of his friend Mark Tobey were an inspiration. In closeups of fallen pine needles or distance views of stippled hillsides, Namkung alludes to Tobey’s all-over abstractions and calligraphic “white writing.” Line, form, texture, and extraordinary clarity of detail are hallmarks of Namkung’s work. “Just about everything I do I try to get away from reality and bring out the essence of the thing or place I’m photographing,” he once said.
Born in Korea in 1919, Namkung’s first devotion was to Western classical music. A vocalist by training, with a sonorous bass and fondness for Schubert, he went on to study at the Tokyo Conservatory in Japan. He and his wife Mineko Suematsu arrived in Seattle on an Army transport ship in 1947, with scholarships to the UW School of Music.
In his early days in Seattle, Namkung became friends with many top Northwest artists, including George Tsutakawa, Paul Horiuchi, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. He was especially fond of Tobey, who in addition to being the region’s most famous painter, was a pianist and composer. They would get together for dinner and “musical soirees,” with Tobey accompanying Namkung as he sang Brahms and Schubert lieder.
Working for Northwest Airlines and studying photography on the side, Namkung was soon adept enough to be hired as a scientific photographer at the UW Medical School. In 1957, determined to be an artist, he bought the best camera he could get, a Sinar 4x5 that he continued to use throughout his life.
Namkung’s first exhibit was at the Henry Art Gallery in 1966. He showed his work rarely, but when he did, it was an event. In 1978, Seattle Art Museum honored him with a solo show at the Modern Art Pavilion at Seattle Center, concurrent with the blockbuster exhibit “Treasures of Tutankhamun.” Namkung’s last exhibition, Elegant Earth, installed at Seattle Asian Art Museum in 2006, was considered so important that art collector Barney Ebsworth purchased the entire show en masse and donated it to the museum. We are fortunate to have that lasting memento of an exceptional man and artist.
Mineko died in 1999. Namkung is survived by his second wife Monica, and daughters Irene and Poki.