Photo caption: Johsel Namkung at Hurricane Ridge. Photo credit: Ken Levine.
When I heard that noted Northwest photographer Johsel Namkung had died in late July, I tried to recall when I first encountered his name. It may have been in David Ishii’s used bookstore in Pioneer Square soon after I moved to Seattle in the late ‘70s. On the walls of his shop, you’d find photos of his favorite writers & artists, Asian American baseball stars and even a photo of a master fly fisherman and author. From the corner of my eye I noticed a photo of a man walking up a ridge, a large camera and tripod slung across his back as he inched towards the horizon. When I pointed it out, David told me it was a picture he had taken of his friend Johsel Namkung.
“Joe likes to scout locations, and when he finds the right one, he’ll stay for hours waiting for the right moment,” he said.
He explained to me it could be when the light reaches a mountain peak at a certain angle or when the wind blows and makes the leaves tremble. Ever the booster for his friends, David then pulled out of a drawer, a color catalog of a show Namkung had at Seattle Art Museum and pointed to a worn shoebox of postcard images from the show. It felt as though I had entered another world, slices of nature turned into slides slid under the concentration of a magnifying glass. At first glance, stillness pervades but upon closer observation, one feels a world teeming with activity. In “Snoqualmie Pass” (circa 1977), a coppery sheen off ice cold water reflects dusk surrounded by rocks capped with freshly fallen snow, and the naked branches of shrubs stand stark like brushstrokes along the water’s edge. A few months later, Johsel popped into the shop to say hi and David introduced me.
When my wife and I interviewed him for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art in the fall of 1989, the details of his extraordinary life began to come together. Namkung was born in Gwangju, a city in South Korea famous for historical uprising against its own government or those of colonial powers like the Japanese during World War II. His father studied in the U.S. and became the first Korean to receive a doctorate of divinity. In Pyongyang, the family lived in a seminary compound amongst American and other foreign missionaries where his interest in Western music and culture was nurtured. At the age of 12, he made up his mind to sing German lieder upon hearing a recording of Schubert with fellow music enthusiasts. At 16, he took first place in singing at the All Korean High School Music Contest.
He would later study at the Tokyo Conservatory where he met his first wife Mineko Suematsu. They lived for a time in Shanghai, where they taught music and worked with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra.
But the winds of war followed them everywhere.
They moved to Nara, Japan, but constant American bombing of the cities sent them back to Korea. Anti-Japanese sentiment and fear for his wife’s safety and an American college scholarship brought them to Seattle. In Seattle, the couple’s first friends were artists George Tsutakawa and Paul Horiuchi and eventually Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and other Northwest artists. Working as a translator with Northwest Orient Airlines took up so much time that Johsel could not continue singing. He resorted to photography instead.
He worked for more than 20 years as a scientific photographer for the pathology department at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. During this time he also had a career as an illustrative photographer and still had time for his own work and trips to the mountains.
When his first wife Mineko died after a prolonged fight with cancer in 1999, he found solace in music. At a Seattle Symphony concert, he talked to a woman who had been sitting next to him the entire season. This is how he met his second wife, Monica. Or as he would explain in a brief autobiography published by the Korean American Historical Society: “As my first marriage was made through music, my second also was made through music.”
His commitment to the art of photography was explained to me this way:
“I don’t photograph to sell, I don’t photography to exhibit, I don’t photograph to publish — I do it because I have to. Any photographer worth his salt must be able to do the entire process by himself. I don’t like the idea of many photographers who say they just do the photograph and have someone else do the print. The act of creative execution is not unlike performing music on the stage. You cannot sing three times and tell the audience to select the best performance they like the best. My negatives are my definitive statement and they need not be cropped or altered. At least that is what I aspire to.”
Johsel often said he was inspired by his late older brother, John, whom he called a “renaissance man” because — although he was self-taught — he seemed to excel at everything he picked up.
In my mind, Johsel Namkung lived several lifetimes in one, and he, too, was a renaissance man. He is the last of that generation of self-made individuals and a link to an earlier generation of Northwest artists. His presence will be missed but his legacy will endure in every image he left behind caught “in the moment.”
When I asked him what makes a good photograph, he told me the importance of having an open mind:
“You can’t have any preconceived ideas. You have to be open so you can respond at what you see and find. The most enjoyment I get out of it is the ordinary thing like roadside weeds. And where people wouldn’t pay any attention, there is the beauty.”