Share story

Seattle photographer Johsel Namkung, whose nine decades of life included classical voice training, wartime danger and acclaim for his fine-art images, died Monday (July 22). He was 94.

Dick Busher, a friend and colleague who published Mr. Namkung’s photography books, said the artist passed away peacefully “after a few weeks of gradually winding down due to his advanced years.”

Mr. Namkung lived an extraordinarily varied and eventful life. Born in Korea in 1919, he trained in Korea and Japan as a classical basso profundo with a specialty in German lieder. In Tokyo, he met his future wife, Mineko Suematsu, a fellow music student. They eloped and married in Shanghai in 1941.

“My Grandpa Joe has been a source of amazement and inspiration my whole life. There has been plenty enough hardship, adventure and romance in his life to make a compelling movie,” said Mr. Namkung’s granddaughter Sara Ullman.

The Namkungs’ desperate maneuvers during the war are a case in point.

In Shanghai in 1944, Mr. Namkung, fearing harm to his wife in revenge for Japanese atrocities in China, fled with her to Japan, taking his share of his inheritance (several antique jade pieces) with him to help them survive. After the Japanese city of Kobe was firebombed, they fled again, to Korea.

There, concerns over Mineko’s safety (anti-Japanese sentiment was virulent) led them to seek refuge in the U.S. in 1947. Their move here was later challenged by the crusaders of the McCarthy Era, and they were threatened with deportation.

Despite that, Mr. Namkung’s daughter Irene Namkung says, her parents were happy to be here.

“They were in awe of the American way of doing things,” she says. “In the family that he came from in Korea, he would never have picked up a wrench to try to repair plumbing. I remember him doing that — and being overjoyed at being able to do it.”

Not all his can-do enterprises panned out. One summer (after learning about “this amazing thing called credit,” as he put it to his family), he bought a bright-red truck and attempted to sell produce from it in Laurelhurst.

His gimmick: playing the xylophone to lure housewives to his truck. The problem — and this was a running theme in his life, his daughter says — was that he was no good with numbers.

“He couldn’t give them change fast enough. So that pretty much ended that little career.”

By the late 1950s, the Namkungs were deep in the local art scene. Mineko ran a Capitol Hill gallery for five years, and the couple counted Mark Tobey, Paul Horiuchi and George Tsutakawa among their lifelong friends. Tobey was a good pianist, and he and Mr. Namkung would perform together at home.

Music didn’t pay the bills, so Mr. Namkung found work as an interpreter for Northwest Airlines (he spoke Korean, Japanese, English, German, three Chinese dialects and “a little Russian that he picked up,” his daughter says). From 1962-1982, he was a medical photographer at the University of Washington Medical School.

After Mineko’s death in 1999, Mr. Namkung remarried — to Monica Jung Namkung, a classical-music lover he met at the Seattle Symphony.

As a photographer, Mr. Namkung had 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. A musical sensibility informed his work, and the aim of his images, he wrote, was to create “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy. … I always see melodic lines, and counterbalancing forces, and weight, and harmony.”

Family vacations, his daughter says, were mostly scouting expeditions to find locales he would then return to on his own with his camera.

“They were funny trips, in the beginning,” she says of these holidays, “because our cars were so awful. They would always break down. I have memories of standing at Stevens Pass with our thumbs out — things like that.”

By the 1970s, his photo adventures grew more ambitious. In Alaska, he would have himself airdropped in the wilderness and then kayak his way out.

“I do think my father was happiest when he was out in the wild places, often alone, and carrying a 60-pound pack, 35 pounds of it being camera gear,” Irene says.

He exhibited only intermittently (his first solo show was at the Henry Art Gallery in 1966), but his work elicited a passionate response from art lovers. When the Seattle Asian Art Museum hosted “Elegant Earth: Photographs by Johsel Namkung” in 2006, Seattle art collector Barney Ebbsworth purchased the whole show and donated it to SAM’s collection. (Namkung had a Seattle Art Museum retrospective at Seattle Center in 1978.)

In the last six years of his life, Mr. Namkung was represented by Woodside/Braseth Gallery.

“You couldn’t meet a nicer person,” gallery owner John Braseth says. “Very approachable. Loved to talk about his art. Liked to talk about other people’s art as well — not just his own.”

When Mr. Namkung retired from UW Medical School, he moved his printing operation into Busher’s home studio. With Busher’s help, Namkung digitized his images and printed them on a much larger scale than before — a step Braseth said triggered a new phase in experiencing the work.

“You were surrounded by it,” Braseth said. “If you stood within 4 or 5 feet of the piece, you felt as if you were actually experiencing what Johsel tried to do — which was capture the essence of nature.”

Seattle photographer Art Wolfe, in an essay on Mr. Namkung, confirms this: “He interpreted and transformed the landscape into something much more abstract, much more intimate, and much more truthful.”

Along with his wife, daughter Irene and granddaughter Sara, Mr. Namkung is survived by a sister, Joanna Namkung Jung; daughter Poki Namkung; grandchildren William Ullman, Nathaniel Stewart and Ariane Stewart; and numerous great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Michael Upchurch: