Namkung, Johsel (1919-2013)

  • By Delores Tarzan Ament
  • Posted 3/03/2003
  • Essay 5346
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Seattle-based photographer Johsel Namkung was born in Korea, and schooled as a musician.   His photographs, sharp-focused studies of nature, convey more than visual information. They carry a mood that communicates so directly that their impact is palpable. To see one of his scenes is to be present with him at the moment of its capture -- to share in the sense of place. "Photography is the apprehension of a thing by realization of our own essential unity with it," Johsel Namkung has said.  This biography of Johsel Namkung is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Johsel Namkung died in July 2013 at the age of 94.

A Photographer of Nature

 Johsel Namkung traces his family back more than 30 generations, to China in the time of Confucius. Many generations ago, the family moved from China to Korea.  Trained as a musician, Johsel moved to Japan to go to the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and there met his future wife, Mineko. After World War II, to escape possible backlash against Mineko if living in Korea or China, he and his new family moved to Seattle with help from American friends. It was here in Seattle that Johsel discovered his interest in photography. The Namkungs' residence was a popular spot for music and art parties for their friends, including all the leading Northwest School artists.

His father, Hyuk Namkung, converted to Christianity after marrying a woman whose wealthy father donated buildings to Christian missionaries in Korea for meetings and schools. Hyuk Namkung agreed to convert in exchange for her agreement to stop using scented camellia oil on her hair. But his later focus on his new faith suggests something well beyond domestic compromise. He went on to graduate from the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pyongyang. He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton University in 1923, and a Doctor of Divinity in 1925 from the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

He returned to Korea to teach theology, Greek, and Hebrew, as the first Korean professor to hold a D.D. degree. His primary focus was a project to re-translate the Bible into Korean, this time not from the King James version, but from original Biblical sources. He completed the task in 1938.

Johsel Namkung was born in 1919, in Kwangju, south Cholla Province, at the southern tip of Korea. He was the sixth of seven children; the fourth son. Impressed by his eldest brother, John, a noted composer and poet who was gifted at whatever art he pursued, Johsel briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an artist, but decided instead to become a musician.

Meeting Mineko

In 1936, he became a student at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music, where he studied voice and music theory under German tutelage. With the Japanese military presence in Korea growing more aggressive, demanding that all Korean Christians worship at Shinto shrines, Johsel's father moved the family to Shanghai, which foreign concessions rendered safer than the rest of China or Korea.

In 1938, in his music teacher's studio, Johsel met fellow student Mineko Suematsu, who was to become his wife. Mineko, a gifted mezzo-soprano, was educated at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and the Nobuko Hara Opera Institute, in Tokyo. Her accomplishments were such that in 1937, as a talented ballet dancer and singer, she had been selected by the Japanese government to be part of a performing troupe sent to China to entertain Japanese troops then in the process of laying waste that country.

Her father, Isamu Suematsu, a noted artist and a notorious womanizer, disapproved of Johsel in part because he was Korean but, more important, because he was a musician, and therefore, in her father's eyes, would be a poor provider. He did not soften his stance, even when Namkung won the All-Japan Music Contest in 1939.

Namkung remained in Japan until 1940, when his father, alarmed at the news coming in on his shortwave radio of Japan's military movements, requested that he rejoin the family in Shanghai. Johsel and Mineko planned that she would follow him to Shanghai as soon as she was able.

A Mixed Marriage in Shanghai

In 1941, Mineko and her mother came to meet Namkung's family in Shanghai. Johsel and Mineko were married on June 19, 1941. It was a match that pleased Namkung's family no better than hers. The Namkungs had no wish for the family to be joined to Japanese, since Namkung's maternal aunt had been severely tortured as a political prisoner of the Japanese. Their marriage overcame political biases and national stereotypes.

Johsel and Mineko assisted in the organization of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Namkung was the orchestra's program editor, and one of its bass soloists. Both were featured singers in a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass. Namkung also gave several solo recitals of German lieder.

The War and Its Aftermath

When in 1944, news on the shortwave radio made it clear that Japan was losing the war, Namkung feared the Chinese might decide to take revenge on Mineko for Japanese atrocities in China. Taking his one-seventh of the Namkung family inheritance in the form of several pieces of antique jade, he fled with Mineko to Japan. In Nara, they attempted to sell several of the antiquities, but in those uncertain times, no one was buying. When they learned that the city of Kobe was burned, it was clear that all Japanese cities were in serious danger. They managed to get passage on a boat to Korea, landing there two months before the war ended. Hunger and strife were widespread in Korea, and Mineko's prospects of safety from Koreans bitter about the Japanese were scarcely better there than in Shanghai.

After the war's end, Johsel worked briefly for the Korean government broadcasting station, acting as an advisor for American Military Government programs. Later, he worked for the Seoul Symphony Orchestra.

A New Home, Scholarships, and a Visa

In 1947, under the sponsorship of an American friend, Colonel Vic N. Miller from Seattle, Johsel and Mineko came to the United States. The president of Seoul National University, Harry B. Ansted, who had been a professor at Seattle Pacific College, provided scholarships for both of them. After an audition at the University of Washington School of Music, Johsel won a scholarship and a teaching assistantship there.

Johsel organized the Asian material in the Music Department's archives, and later taught Japanese language at the university's Far Eastern Department. The teaching job entitled him to a permanent resident's visa, which enabled the couple to bring their two young daughters, Irene and Paulette (known as Poki), to the United States in 1949.

At that time, very few other Koreans lived in Seattle. Harold Sunoo, an avowed communist, was assistant professor at the Far Eastern Department. He invited Namkung to join a Marxist study group that met twice a month.

Troubles With the INS

Namkung fell afoul of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service when he agreed to carry with him on a trip back to Korea a letter by one of the Marxist sympathizers, the Reverend Kyung Sun Lee. The letter was addressed to authorities in North Korea. South Korea was at that time under the control of Syngman Rhee and was reeling under the mismanagement and corruption of his regime. Rhee, who graduated from Princeton University, was a classmate of Namkung's father, and although they were not particularly friendly, their names were linked. It seemed inevitable that North Korea would invade the South within a short time, and that Namkung's father would be subjected to great pressure from the North Korean government. Johsel hoped that his cooperation with Rev. Lee might prompt someone of influence in North Korea to mitigate conditions for his father.

Rev. Lee's letter boasted of his influence over Korean students in the United States, naming each of them. He included Johsel's name on the list. Lee hoped to gain an influential position when he returned from the United States to North Korea. When he eventually did return, he disappeared without a trace, possibly executed as a suspected U.S. spy.

During the U.S.-Korean conflict, the files that contained Rev. Lee's letter were found by U.S. military forces. The names on Lee's list were sent back to the United States. One evening, INS. officials arrested Johsel, confronting him with his name on Lee's list. They held him for questioning until the small hours of the morning, then marked him for deportation (Namkung Interview).

For seven long years during the McCarthy era, the Namkungs fought a legal battle to remain in the United States. They lost their plea in Federal Court, and were turned down again at the Appeals Court in San Francisco, finally winning the right to remain when the case was heard before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C. Mineko took a job as a kimono-clad waitress at Canlis Restaurant to help pay the legal bills. During the deportation hearings, Namkung resigned his teaching position at the University of Washington, but continued to work there as a translator.

Airline Greeter

In 1951, having completed his music studies, Namkung took a position with Northwest Orient Airlines. (The name was later changed to Northwest Airlines.) To encourage international travel between Asia and the United States, the airline hired him as a language specialist, to greet and offer assistance to important Asian politicians and businessmen arriving in Seattle. With fluency in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean and with a cultural polish superior to most of the arrivals, he was a perfect choice for the job.

"I had hoped I could continue my music career," he recalls. "But meeting flights which routinely might be delayed for six or seven hours meant that I couldn't devote the necessary time to practice" (Namkung Interview). After he had rejected opportunities as an opera singer and a popular entertainer, he thought he might still pursue advanced studies in ethnomusicology.

Photography Beginnings

He picked up photography as a means of creative expression, and found himself intrigued with it. In 1956, he quit work with Northwest Orient to apprentice with Chao-Chen Yang, a former teacher at the Burnley School of Art who was revered by Northwest photographers for his expertise in color. Following Asian tradition, Namkung worked for him for nine months without salary in Yang's downtown commercial studio, where food, fashion, and architecture were the usual subjects.

During that time, Mineko opened an art gallery, Hanga, on the west side of Broadway near John Street, on Seattle's Capitol Hill. It joined the Zoë Dusanne Gallery and the Otto Seligman Gallery as the only commercial galleries in the city at the time. At Hanga, she introduced Seattle collectors to contemporary Japanese woodblock prints. Americans were beginning to recover from the animosity to things Japanese engrained in them during World War II. The time was ripe for a fresh appreciation of Japanese art.

When the gallery closed five years later, Mineko began to exhibit and sell her own watercolors and prints through shows at the Kiku Gallery. Johsel had had by then, the first exhibition of his photographs at the Henry Art Gallery.

In 1957, when Kodak introduced Type C prints, Namkung worked with the negative-positive process. This process requires meticulous persistence and absolute color vision. He prefers to work with color-negative film because of his ability to manipulate it in the printing process through filtration of primary colors.

Johsel's training included a weeklong workshop with Ansel Adams in 1958, in Carmel, California, where he worked in black and white as Adams customarily did. There are major differences, both technically and aesthetically, between black-and-white and color photography. Black-and-white photographs translate color into a gray scale. Namkung thinks of black-and-white photography as an abstract medium, noting that successful black-and-white images invoke stronger impressions than do color shots.


After his apprenticeship, Namkung took a position with a commercial photo laboratory, Chroma, where for five years he was in charge of professional-quality enlargements. Simultaneously with that professional work, he was finding photography to be an increasingly expressive medium for looking at nature. He began to exhibit his work in the Seattle Photographic Society's Annual International Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).

Hidezo Fujimura, a Japanese businessman with whom Namkung had become friendly during his days with the airline, gave him a needed break. Fujimura owned a knitting company that sold angora sweaters to major American department stores. His business was prospering. In 1957, he gave Johsel $500 to buy the best possible camera equipment, and go into business. With this gift, Johsel obtained a Sinar 4 x 5-inch view camera and several lenses, which he used for his subsequent nature photography.

Music Nights with Artist Friends

Through his artist friends Paul Horiuchi (1906-1999) and George Tsutakawa (1910-1997), he met Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Kenneth Callahan (1906-1986), and Guy Anderson (1906-1998). Horiuchi, Tsutakawa, and the Namkungs hosted soirees for the artists, at which, after a sumptuous repast, they would sit around sketching each other, or inventing imaginary scenes from nature.

The Namkungs' most frequent visitor was Tobey, who loved to play the piano to accompany Namkung as he sang Brahms and Schubert songs. Namkung recalls that in the late 1950s Tobey used to take the sheet music for the songs with him to his music teacher, Berthe Ponce Jacobson, to be coached in playing it as accompaniment during his next visit. (The musical connection between artists extended to the next generation when Paul Horiuchi Jr. studied voice with Mineko and Johsel.)

Photography for Humanity

Namkung's experiences during World War II had left him with the desire to contribute somehow to the welfare of humanity. He and his family had survived perilous times by being helped by people of enormous kindness.

He took a portfolio of his photographs to the University of Washington Medical School. He was initially told they had no work for a photographer, then someone recalled that the Pathology Department had an opening in electron microscopy. Namkung was hired as a medical photographer, a position he occupied for the next 25 years. He supervised the photography of everything from clinical work to autopsies and research. He taught postgraduate students to photograph what they saw under a microscope.

The job gave him ample time and opportunity to pursue his own photography, shooting nature from the sand dunes along the Oregon coast to the wilderness beaches of the Olympic Peninsula. Sometimes he carried the heavy camera up mountains, shooting no more than one or two exposures in a day, to bring home a prized shot of lichen or a rock.


In 1966, he had his first solo exhibition, at the Henry Art Gallery, in conjunction with the publication of the book The Olympic Rain Forest written by Ruth Kirk, which featured his photographs. That was followed by two exhibitions at Reed College in Oregon. In 1973, he was given another exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, this time a retrospective that included both black-and-white and color work. With a solo exhibition at the Focus Gallery in San Francisco, a pioneer West Coast photography gallery, he joined the ranks of artists such as Tsutakawa and Ivey.

In 1978, the Seattle Art Museum mounted a major exhibition of his nature photography. On the cover of the show's catalog, a coral sky finds perfect reflection in the unruffled water of Lake Wenatchee, ringed with the charcoal silhouette of mountains. It is one of those images whose symmetry and spare beauty can cause viewers to breathe differently when they behold it.

Poetry, Music, Photography

The poetic sensibility Namkung brought to his subjects is visible in his capture of waterfalls, wildflowers in high mountain meadows, tree branches encased in glittering ice, and the lichen-crusted bark of ancient trees. In conversation with Charles Cowles, then curator of modern art, Namkung said:

"My photography is very strongly based on music. I think photography is the reflection of things which already exist in their own right, but they need an artist so that they may be fully seen and understood by man. These worldly things may be in physical form, as the setting moon, or in the form of sound, as ocean breakers pounding on the shore and rain tinkling down on the gravel. In my work I would like to impart that impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy, whatever you will, of that moment when you are on the top of the mountain standing all by yourself with your camera, that moment's loneliness and exultation. I would like to impart not just visual sensations but the third dimension of the visual world" (Namkung).

Unlike many photographers who work in black and white, Namkung does not process his own film. That, he says, is a mechanical function. But he does the development and manipulation of the print as an integral part of the artistic process that uses a camera.

In 1975, he acquired the darkroom equipment to produce 20 x 24-inch images. That same year he sold his prized Swiss Sinar Expert 4 x 5-inch and 5 x 7-inch view camera, which he had used since 1952, and replaced it with a Sinar 8 x 10. The point, he says, is not merely to present a large image, but one which works well in large format.

From his musical background, he perceives a photograph as a visual fugue with an overall theme and contrapuntal texture, and details that provide a progressive form. Nearly all of his major photographs can be seen in that light. To satisfy him, his work must contain all the information of the original scene, plus the pictorial elements of other forms of art. Photography can hold its own with painting, he says, yet differ from painting in its utmost clarity.

Namkung's life changed dramatically on February 26, 1999, when Mineko died of cancer. He scattered her ashes on ShiShi Beach, near Neah Bay, Washington, a place that had been special to them for decades. Rededicating himself to photography has helped him find renewed meaning in life.


Deloris Tarzan, "Namkung Captures Spirit of Place," The Seattle Times, April 9, 1978; Johsel Namkung Interview, Archives of Northwest Art, University of Washington Libraries; Deloris Tarzan Ament Interview with Johsel Namkung, September 29, 1999; Ruth Kirk, The Olympic Rain Forest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966); Johsel Namkung: An Artist's View of Nature (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1978), Exhibition Catalog.
Note: The introduction to this essay was updated on July 26, 2013.

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