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(Photo by Tseno)

Photographer Johsel Namkung grew up wanting to be a singer. His specialty was singing German lieder.

“Wild with Imagining”

By Ann-Marie Stillion

originally published June 10, 2006

Johsel Namkung’s exhibit of color photographs of nature at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, “Elegant Earth,” is powerful and simple at the same time. Influenced by his training as a musician and close association with other significant artists of his young adulthood, Namkung, now in his 80s, has built a body of work that is a rigorous and passionate visual song to the artist’s love of form and beauty.

Born to a prestigious Korean family in 1919, the young boy was exposed to artists and thinkers who pursued art, religion and politics with fervor in a turbulent period of that country’s history. His father was the first Korean to be appointed to the Pyongyang Theological Seminary, the first Presbyterian seminary in Korea; an aunt was a famous Korean patriot; an uncle founded the first daily Korean newspaper. Influenced by the Christian missionaries who surrounded him, the young Namkung developed an ear and appreciation for classical Western music. And though his family resisted his desire to become a musician at first, they gave in when he began to win awards for his singing. He later studied at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music. His principal interest was singing German lieder.

According to interviews in the Archives of American Art he gave for the Smithsonian Institution in 1989 and 1991, by the time the artist received his master’s in music in 1951 from the University of Washington, Namkung realized that he couldn’t make a living singing his beloved German lieder. On the suggestion of his wife Mineko, he began to photograph, teaching himself and studying printing techniques with the Seattle photographer Chao-Chen Yang. After serving as a technician in several photo labs and exhibiting with the burgeoning Seattle photography community, he landed a position as a medical photographer at the University of Washington.

The position at the university, though often intense and requiring all-night stints, also gave him the freedom he needed to pursue his own interests. An invitation to photograph the Olympic National Park with writer and photographer Ruth Kirk led to a well-received book. Other books followed on Northwest native art, African masks and other art subjects. By the 1970s, Namkung’s career had grown to include medical photography, art photography and his own creative photography.

As part of the current exhibit schedule, last month the Korean American artist spoke at the Seattle Asian Art Museum to an overflow crowd full of well-wishers, many of whom knew the artist due to his long career in the Northwest art scene. In a bow tie and double-breasted suit, his resonant bass voice boomed over everyone’s heads as he explained his images with a slide show and tales from Shanghai to Spokane.

Namkung loves what he calls the “colorless, color photograph.” Displaying one of his well-shot images of a mountain reflecting on a lake, he snorts derisively that it was done for “commercial reasons” and that the pretty realism doesn’t attract him. The real photograph is here, he said, pointing to a vague pattern formed on the surface of the water below the snowcapped peak. In the next slide, we see what he sees: a close-up pattern of green grass floating askew on the dark water. It forms a sensual chaotic color field, revealing something easily missed by a disinterested eye. This is Namkung’s nature, a world heartbreakingly beautiful and wondrous, crafted again with the human eye.

Namkung is clearly a Western artist influenced by an Eastern aesthetic, not the other way around. Pyongyang was once his hometown, but London, Venice, Seattle and New York gave the artist a vision through which his soul could speak. He off-handedly quotes the British poet William Blake and sings a German song to share his love and passion. Someone mentions Byron and he smiles as if the 18th-century European poet just left the room.
Poetry, music, love, art and friendship intertwine in the imagery of the photographs that hang in the museum gallery above the lecture hall. It is all there in the artist’s heart and mind, and revealed again in his work.

Namkung called Ansel Adams a teacher and friend, and like the other great American artist, he photographs nature, often after visiting a place many times. It is the Northwest artist Mark Tobey who impacts and influences him most today; he told the audience he often asks himself, “What would Mark Tobey do if he were here?” when an element in his photographs confounds him. The two made a lasting friendship in the 1950s. The singing Namkung was sometimes accompanied by Tobey on the piano.

Family photos reveal a young Namkung and George Tsutakawa in their homemade outdoor “gallery” on the beach. He partied with Paul Horiuchi and seems to have known, exhibited with or become close friends with every important Northwest artist in the 20th century.

The result for Namkung is that a frozen stream looks like a musical chart spilling into the air; rocks in the swirling water lose their permanence just as smoke vanishes into thin air. The photographer says that he imagines himself seeing and retrieving from nature an inherent message or song that he makes visible with the medium of photography. In his mind he is adding a musical accompaniment as he photographs.

He chides his audience that it is not important what the artist sees. He wants his audience to “go wild with imagining.”