Friday, September 16, 2011

Johsel Namkung's Remarkable Nature Photographs

Josel Namkung with his 1981 photograph "Lake Juliuis, North Cascades"
The current exhibit at the Gordon Woodside / John Braseth Gallery in South Lake Union, titled "Masters Behind the Lens," features works by Ansel Adams and Johsel Namkung.

Adams is represented by a framed group of six familiar black and white prints, offered at $200,000. Far more interesting are the dozen or so vivid color prints by the 92-year-old photographer Johsel Namkung, selling for $5,500 apiece. It's as good a show as one can find outside a museum; in fact, the last time these photographs were exhibited was in 2006 at the Seattle Art Museum.

Namkung is a remarkable polymath. Born in Korea to a Chinese family that converted to Christianity, he studied music in Japan. In 1940, as an apiring opera singer, he took first prize in the All-Japan Music Contest. After the war, he and his wife, Mineko, moved to Seattle, where Johsel earned a master's degree in music at the University of Washington. Because he spoke several Asian languages fluently, he was then hired by Northwest Orient Airlines, but he soon discovered photography and embarked on a series of apprenticeships with the likes of George Tsutakawa, Paul Horiuchi, Mark Tobey and Ansel Adams himself. At one point in the 1950s, during the simmering conflict between North and South Korea, the Namkungs were declared enemy aliens and slated for deportation. Mineko, for a time, worked as a kimono-clad waitress at Canlis to help pay the family's legal bills.

To support his burgeoning career as an artist, Namkuing took a position as a scientific photographer with the UW School of Medicine. A friend gave him $500 to buy a Sinar 4 x 5-inch view camera and several lenses, which he used for his nature photography for the next three decades. In his book, "Ode to the Earth" (pbulished by Cosgrove Editions in 2006) Namkung describes "the loneliness and exultation" of reaching the top of the mountain, "standing all by yourself with your camera."

The actual printmaking is done by Namkung's longtime collaborator Dick Busher, who first scans the negative into a digital file. Namkung orchestrates the balance of colors (tone, hue and density), then Busher makes a proof using a highly calibrated Epson color printer fed by a 44-inch-wide roll of cotton-based, archival paper. The process uses eight inks and takes over two hours for each print.

The results are astonishingly textured, almost painterly images, from closeups of an icicle to a telephoto frame of heather on a mountainside. They make you gasp with wonder.

The exhibit runs through October 15th and is free. Woodside/Braseth, 2101 9th Ave., 206-622-7243, Open 11 am-6 pm Tuesday-Saturday.