The career of Seattle photographer Johsel Namkung will be celebrated May 26 with a publication party for a sumptuous new book surveying his career.

Share story

Photographic eyes don’t come much sharper than Johsel Namkung’s.

The 93-year-old Seattle artist might technically be a “nature photographer.” But in focusing so closely on the patterns and textures of rocks, sand, wood, water, forests and meadows, he comes surprisingly — and vigorously — close to something more abstract.

A new book honoring Namkung’s career, “Johsel Namkung: A Retrospective” (Cosgrove Editions, 144 pp., $175), makes clear how glorious his achievements are. The images are huge. The detail is crystalline. The essence of each object under his lens vibrates with life.

Take “McCue Ridge, Washington,” which isn’t a landscape at all, but a study of a worn, twisted, toppled tree trunk in Central Washington. As you look at the whorls and knobs of the bleached, weathered bark, Namkung’s likening of his images to music makes perfect sense.

“I always see melodic lines,” he says, “and counterbalancing forces of weight and harmony.”

The book, selecting 100 of Namkung’s best works, is magnificently produced and large enough to do some justice to the images it reproduces. Accompanying essays by photographer Art Wolfe and former Henry Art Gallery chief curator Elizabeth Brown thoughtfully highlight what’s special about this work.

Best of all, there’s an introduction by Namkung himself on how he came to photography after a career as a singer and a translator. Namkung also offers a brief autobiographical sketch, describing his turbulent young adulthood where, as a Korean married to a Japanese woman during World War II, he found himself shuttling among Korea, Shanghai and Japan to escape wartime dangers to himself and his wife. He has lived in Seattle since 1947.

A publication party for “Johsel Namkung: A Retrospective” will be held 3-6 p.m. Saturday at the Walker Ames Room in Kane Hall at the University of Washington. The reception is free and open to the public. The photographer will be present, and half a dozen or so large Namkung prints will be on display.

If you can’t attend but want to order the book, call 888-507-7375 or email

Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times arts writer