State of the art
‘People have a gift of looking, but not everybody has the gift of seeing’

Ken Mochizuki April 15, 1986 0

The bark of a fallen tree looms like mountain ranges and bottomless canyons, with a bridge crossing one foreboding crevasse.

A green and orange-spotted field resembles a Martian landscape. Yet, it is something natural, found in the Northwest. But what?

Fallen maple leaves weave a colorful mosaic, laced, with a silky sheen of frost.

Glossy, pitch-black furrows and mounds appear to be a close-up of a crinkled leather jacket. But not with ferns poking through.

Welcome to the world of photographer Joshel Namkung.

“People have the gift of looking,” Namkung said, “but not everybody has the gift of seeing.”

Namkung, one of the premiere nature photographers in the Northwest, will have an exhibit of his work from 1980 to 1986 at the Foster/White Gallery in Pioneer Square. One hundred photos and mural-sized prints will be displayed, including “50 Vignettes of King County Parks,” a series of photos shot at approximately 80 parks in King County and commissioned by the King County Arts Commission.

Born in Korea in 1919, Namkung left for Tokyo at age 17 to study music at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music. He later sang professionally, specializing in German lieder. After World War II, Namkung arrived in Seattle and planned on proceeding to Europe to continue his singing career. He ended up staying and assumed graduate studies in singing at the University of Washington, taught Japanese in the school’s Far Eastern Department, and later served as a language specialist for Northwest Orient Airlines. Realizing he could not earn a living as a singer, he took up photography in 1957.

Namkung’s first mentor was Chao-chen Yang, whom he considered the “dean of photographers’ in Seattle. Namkung supported himself as a medical photographer at the University of Washington, where he shot for scientific publications, displays and specialized in electron microscopy. Throughout this period, Namkung consistently refused to commercialize the art of photography.

“It’s an oriental philosophy that has been on the back of the minds for centuries,” he said. “Commercial photography belongs to the lowest strata of society because the intellectual class looked down on commercialism.”

Namkung retired from active duties at University of Washington in 1981, but remains a consultant and devotes full-time to photography. His photographic subjects are exclusively found in what he calls “the beauty in the natural world.”

Since his early apprenticeship with Chao-chen Yang, Namkung has always worked with color photography. He said public demand usually favors color over black and white, and that black and white is “much more esoteric.”

“If all the hues of nature are tuned into black and white, that’s abstract,” Namkung said. “It’s easier for people to see all the natural colors. The pitfall of most photographers is that they photograph too many colors that end up clashing. My style is monochromatic with just a hint of counterbalancing colors.”

“Be open-minded,” he said. “The subject itself gives the harmony and structural arrangement—most people would call that composition.

“There has to be communication between what’s out there and what you see as beauty. There is a flow of energy that forms a balance which leads to a certain tension within the picture. Try to find the life of things. If you are truthful with the thing in the photo, then the audience will respond.”

Namkung said he finds his subjects “in the very mundane that most people overlook and step on.” For him, a clump of grass examined close-up, could have “unlimited beauty.”

“Sometimes there is that pleasing arrangement of things that triggers other sensations,” he said. “A waterfall can create a musical sound effect. Some subjects trigger sensations of smell or tactile feelings.”

His previous training in music influences his approach. He explained that before taking a photograph, he painstakingly prepares like in a stage rehearsal, then takes the photo in one shot like in a live performance where there are no retakes.

Namkung considers the wind his major nemesis because he “doesn’t do photographs of things that move.” He knows that the wind will stop at some point, and the moment everything is still, he presses the shutter button.

“Any important element of my pictures should be very sharp—that is my hallmark,” Namkung said. “I have infinite patience. Sometimes I wait for hours for one shot.”

Since early childhood, Namkung has always maintained a dual interest in the visual and performing arts. For his style of photography he feels his earlier musical career and his present craft are “inseparable.

“Music not only produces sound, but also conveys human feeling that has to trigger other emotions and experiences,” he said. “The same with photography. If there is no imagination or suggestion, then it is like reading a newspaper.”

Namkung’s favorite locations are the Olympic Peninsula and Eastern Washington. He described one excursion through the North Cascade Highway in October. The tourists “who take the calendar and postcard pictures” were gone. He drove past a meadow that was a uniform color. Namkung stopped and walked through. He found blades of grass turning different colors and lichens growing in intriguing formations—material that provide an abundance of possibilities for his close-up photographic style.

“There is a world of unlimited beauty that can be found while on your knees,” he said.

Namkung’s exhibit at the Foster/White Gallery will run from April 3 to 27. He uses a Mamiya RZ67 camera for the series on the King county parks, a Sinar 4×5 Viewcamera for the larger prints, and a Sinar 8×10 Viewcamera for the murals.

Namkung’s show will be displayed in conjunction with an exhibit of metal sculpture by Seattle artist Gerard Tsutakawa. His collection of works is titled, “Orikane” or “folded metal.”

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