Seattle artist Johsel Namkung gets a mini-retrospective at Woodside/Braseth Gallery through Oct. 15, with a reverent tip of the hat to Ansel Adams (who was briefly Namkung's teacher) included.

Share story

Seattle photographer Johsel Namkung, now in his 90s, has an instinctive eye for the insistent shapes in nature: a sandbar’s ripples, a fir forest’s verticals, a grass field’s breeze-combed swirls.

In his large-scale digital-pigment prints, he immerses the viewer in both the repetitions of those shapes and their wayward variations. There’s something pared-to-the-essence about the way he sees things — and something infinitely complex about it, too.

At his best, he’s simultaneously a minimalist and a maximalist: busy yet serene, obsessively detailed yet utterly transparent in his vision.

Those contradictions make for a fascinating inner tension in his art.

Sixteen of Namkung’s color prints, along with a set of six gelatin silver prints by Ansel Adams, are on display in “Masters Behind the Lens” at Woodside/Braseth Gallery. Namkung’s pieces range in date from 1968 to 2002, and they show him focusing more and more on up-close, horizonless detail as the decades pass.

Two different photos taken in 1968 and 1981, both titled “Shi Shi Beach, Olympic Nat. Park, WA,” illustrate the direction Namkung has taken over the years. The first is a classic shoreline-at-sunset shot. It’s gorgeous, but it’s also plausible postcard material. The second is a near-abstract close-up of sharp, ruddy rock formations — and paradoxically it’s the one that pulls you more strongly into its particulars, even though Namkung provides no scenic context for it, beyond its title.

“Tinkham Road, WA” (1986) falls somewhere between the two Shi Shi Beach shots in its method. It uses fir trees almost as notes in a minimalist score. Each tree trunk is a matchstick-thin stroke, set on steep Cascades slopes. The ripples, the crags and the snow-white streaks of avalanche paths add up to a visual music, with the trees providing the timbre of the piece while the landscape’s contours provide its symphonic sweep.

The music comparison is apt. Namkung, who trained as a classical musician, writes that in his work he aims to impart an “impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy … not just visual sensations.”

The tumult palpable in Namkung’s contemplative vistas may be rooted in his personal history. He grew up in Korea, Japan and Shanghai, reaching young manhood during the worst of World War II in Asia. To complicate matters, his wife, a fellow musician, was Japanese, making their choice of a postwar home problematic. The couple’s move to the U.S. in 1947 was challenged during the McCarthy Era.

There’s nothing overtly political about his work. There’s not even any human presence in it. Yet Namkung’s eye for forces of nature that are stronger than any individual organism seems to reflect his own life story. You can see it in “Sherman Pass, WA” (1993), with its mountainside of firs stripped bare by fire or disease, or in images of rugged peaks, taken in Korea in 1987, that prompt thoughts of seismic upheaval.

Namkung has a gentler side too, evinced in “Frink Park, Seattle, WA” (1978), with its crooked snow-covered latticework of branches. But it’s when he pushes his images almost into abstract territory that he achieves his most powerful effects.

The six Ansel Adams items making a “guest appearance” in Namkung’s show are familiar classics, including shots of Yosemite Valley and Arizona cliff dwellings. Still it’s absolutely essential to see them “in the flesh” where they have a more seductive allure than they ever could in a catalog reproduction.

Their otherworldly silver-and-shadow luster is, as Adams’ notes suggest, the result of darkroom ingenuity, unconventional positioning of the camera or simply an endless patience in waiting for the right fleeting moment to take the shot.

In the same way that Namkung sees his landscapes as springing from his own inward musical sensibility, Adams describes his work as “built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.”

Namkung counted Adams as an influence, and even studied with him briefly. Woodside/Braseth’s pairing of the two artists is a thoughtful, felicitous move.

Michael Upchurch: