By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Johsel Namkung, Korean by birth, is a singer and translator. He arrived in Seattle on Oct. 24, 1947, at age 28, with his Japanese wife. During World War II and the years following, he lived in Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, and various other parts of Japan trying to keep his family out of danger. He left his two daughters behind with other family in Seoul.
As he recalls in the preface to a new book of his photographs, “Johsel Namkung: A Retrospective,” he brought his family to Seattle because a missionary he had met in Korea promised him a music scholarship at Seattle Pacific College.
“We were delighted to find that waiting for us were Mr. and Mrs. Harold Sunoo, the only Korean residents in Seattle,” he said.
“We were among the second group of students from Korea to come to study in the United States after the war.”
Sixty-five years later, Seattle now has more than 6,700 Koreans. And that is not the only remarkable change in Johsel Namkung’s life. Having made great strides in music — including being a part of Seattle’s first performance of Gustav Mahler’s music in 1951 — he decided in 1965 to drop music in favor of photography. After one final performance on March 11 of that year, Namkung said, “I never sang again privately or publicly.”
As he explains in the book, Namkung didn’t feel that he could follow two artistic paths at once.
Namkung’s longtime friend and publisher Dick Busher met Namkung around 1970.
“I was just getting started in photography at that time,” said Busher. “My initial impression was that he was very kind, very giving of himself, and extremely talented.”
What Namkung brought to photography was an exquisite eye for detail, combined with a larger, wider temperament to incorporate intricacy and mathematical order to images of nature.
“He interpreted and transformed the landscape into something much more abstract, much more intimate, and much more truthful,” writes photographer and mountain climber Art Wolfe in the forward to the new book.
“Our trips together were always enjoyable,” said Busher, speaking of the many times when the two friends would pack up cameras and head for the wild. “Some of my favorite places were in Olympic National Park, both the mountains, the rain forests, and the coastal areas. … Johsel almost always used the 4×5 view camera, occasionally the 8×10 view camera. He would only use a smaller camera if using the view camera was totally impractical. He always used color negative film and never used the newer digital cameras for his art work.”
Busher and Namkung put together a collection of Namkung’s work in 2006 for an exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. For this more recent book, “the selection process was essentially his decision. I was not shy in giving him my opinions, nor were his family and friends most familiar with his work. The final choices were his,” Busher said.
Busher also emphasizes the special printing process, which allowed him to bring the photos to life on the printed page. “The printing process I selected for the book is called stochastic screening, or FM (frequency modulation) screening. Most books are printed with halftone screening or AM (amplitude modulation) screening. In the conventional AM method, the dots of ink are laid out on a grid pattern, and the dots vary in size. For example, a dark part of the image would have larger dots than a lighter part of the image. More ink with not-so-much paper showing vs. less ink with more paper showing. In stochastic FM screening, the ink dots are all the same size. For FM screening, a dark part of the image has more dots per square-inch and a light area has fewer dots per square-inch,” Busher said.
Summing up Namkung’s influence, Busher said, “What I learned from him was patience, to take the time to create an image that spoke to me.”
As the new book demonstrates, Namkung mastered time and visual lyricism. He’d been an ardent and dedicated student before becoming a teacher. (end)
For more information on “Johsel Namkung: A Retrospective” and his life and work, call Dick Busher at 888-507-7375, or send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.