Patrick Na­gatani, artist-pho­tog­ra­pher fa­mous for ‘nu­clear’ col­lages, dies at 72

San Francisco Chronicle - - OBITUARY - By Sam Roberts Sam Roberts is a New York Times writer.

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 my­, 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.”

Ruth Frem­son / New York Times 2014

Artist Patrick Na­gatani (left) speaks with the mu­seum cu­ra­tors Don Baci­galupi (cen­ter) and Chad Al­li­good at his stu­dio in Al­bu­querque in 2014.

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