Patrick Nagatani, artist-photographer famous for ‘nuclear’ collages, dies at 72
Patrick Nagatani, a Japanese-American who was born just days after an atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima, his family’s hometown, and who devoted his photographic career to evoking the nuclear legacy of the adopted nation that interned his parents during World War II, died on Oct. 27 at his home in Albuquerque. He was 72.
His wife, Leigh Anne Langwell, said the cause was colon cancer.
Nagatani never enrolled in a technical photography course, but he had training in Hollywood, making specialeffects models for films (including “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and adapted it to create phantasmagorical collages.
His constructions often juxtaposed photographs of military sites, monuments, Native Americans, Japanese tourists and self-images to suggest the contradictions of nuclear energy, the development of atomic weapons in the New Mexico desert and the environmental consequences of those weapons.
“There’s a certain edge to photography that’s really restricting,” he once said. “It’s a controlled medium, especially in the process. And I just want to throw that control out as much as possible.”
He did just that, both in teaching photography at the University of New Mexico from 1987 to 2007 and as a meticulous artist of landscapes — work that reverberated with the eclectic visions of artists who defied conventional boundaries, among them one of his teachers, Robert Heinecken, who juxtaposed photographs to create cultural iconography; the pioneering advertising illustrator Lejaren A. Hiller Sr., known for his theatrically staged tableaus; and Robert Rauschenberg, who combined artistic mediums to revolutionary effect.
Reviewing an exhibition of Nagatani’s photographs in 2015 at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Mass., Mark Feeney of The Boston Globe wrote: “To call them photographs seems reductive. They are variously large, small, in color, black and white, staged, straight, funny, heartbreaking. The one constant is unpredictability.”
Nagatani combined multiple printing and hand-coloring to push the contours of photography. In one construction, he compared Hopi dancers to a battery of missiles pointing skyward to contrast modern ideology and tribal myth.
Reviewing Nagatani’s book “Nuclear Enchantment” in 1991 in The New York Times, Peter B. Hales wrote that his photographic constructions “crackle with intelligence and rage.”
“They are glaringly colored absurdist constructions,” Hales wrote, “with all their cracks and props showing, and they seem appropriate to a subject inherently irrational: the history of atomic weapons, their production and misuse, and the vast environmental consequences of modern hubris in bringing the technology into being in the first place.”
Patrick Allen Ryiochi Nagatani was born on Aug. 19, 1945, in Chicago.
Before they married, Nagatani’s parents, John Nagatani and Diane Yoshimura, were separately held in detention camps in California and Arkansas after the United States declared war on Japan in December 1941. They met later in an early-release program in Chicago.
His father’s family had owned a farm in California. His mother had just graduated from high school when the internment order was issued early in 1942. His grandfather, who had fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and immigrated to the United States, also was interned.
“It broke him, it just broke his physical psychological being,” Nagatani said of his grandfather in a 2007 video interview for the University of New Mexico. “My grandfather left the country and went back to Japan and died a drunk.”
With their young son, his parents moved back to California, where his father became an aerospace engineer in Los Angeles and his mother taught school.
Nagatani earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968 from California State University in Los Angeles and a master’s in fine arts from the University of California, Los Angeles.
At UCLA, he anticipated his specialty in collage by collaborating with two other graduate students on an exhibition and book that juxtaposed the work of Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake, who had photographed the Manzanar internment camp in California, where his mother had been interred.
In addition to his wife, a photographer and artist, Nagatani is survived by a son, Methuen, from his first marriage, to Jeanean Bodwell; and his brothers, Nick and Scott.
Besides his reflections on American nuclear might, Nagatani’s work included exhibitions and portfolios titled “Japanese-American Concentration Camp” “Chromotherapy,” the ancient application of color as a cure; and a series of photographs of Stonehenge in England and the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico.
He wrote a novel, “The Race: Tales in Flight,” which was published this year. A documentary film, “Patrick Nagatani: Living in the Story,” is scheduled to be released in 2018.
Describing the 40 images in his “Nuclear Enchantment” collection, Nagatani wrote: “I intentionally show a leveled world. Polluted skies, contaminated earth, nuclear explosions, fantastic happenings are all seen in the same light.”
“I hope that they are captivating and enigmatic,” he wrote. “I want them to remind us of the spiritual poverty of the technical age.”
In an interview with the arts website myhero.com, Nagatani recalled his metamorphosis from a precise technical illustrator, in a drawing class at Santa Monica City College when he was 31, to a photographer.
“I was the hit of the class because I duplicated everything so beautifully,” he said. “Then one day Gerry, my instructor, took me aside and showed me some Cézanne slides. He showed me one painting of a ladder and asked, ‘What’s wrong with this ladder?’
“‘It doesn’t look like it will hold anything,’ I answered.
“Then he asked, ‘Why do you think he painted it like this?’ and I began to understand about the nature of art, how it expresses ideas about things,” Nagatani continued. “He told me that since I reproduced everything like a camera, that I should use a camera for future assignments. I started my photography then and never looked back.”
Artist Patrick Nagatani (left) speaks with the museum curators Don Bacigalupi (center) and Chad Alligood at his studio in Albuquerque in 2014.