To the Pit of Things: On Patrick Nagatani and Mentorship
Albuquerque, NMUniversity of New Mexico Art Museum
April 27 - July 28, 2018
Santa Fe, NMNew Mexico Museum of Art
May 25 — September 9, 2018
Albuquerque, NMAlbuquerque Art Museum
June 23 — September 23, 2018
On October 25, 2017, I received an unexpected package in the mail, which, as I tore it open, revealed white letters over a gray-clouded sky: The Race: Tales in Flight. At the bottom, in bright red lettering, was the name of my mentor, Patrick Ryoichi Nagatani. Patrick was first my professor of photography, 15 years ago. During his Intermediate Photography class, in 2003, we bonded over the building of miniatures and constructed photography—both of which feature heavily throughout his career and are central to the photographs in the The Race, his debut novel. The book’s cover image, of a Supermarine Spitfire airplane in the clouds, brought me back to one of the last times I would see him, in 2016, when I visited his house and looked at the prints depicting these planes in flight.
When the book arrived, I emailed Patrick right away. The response, sent from his email address, began formally (“Dear Colin”) and I knew immediately that it wasn’t written by him. It was his wife Leigh Anne Langwell—a wonderful artist and beloved friend—informing me that he was close to passing. I remembered how, in his home, my former professor had gently pulled the thin archival paper away from each print as we huddled over them, his beloved dog Annie at his feet. He pointed at a few pictures and asked which airplane I thought represented him. “The red one,” I said. (Of course, red—that toxic, beautiful glowing red appears in nearly all his bodies of work.) The next day, October 27, he was gone. I had not yet opened the book, and though I eventually did, through force, I have still not read it and am not sure I’m ready to. It sits on my bookshelf, facing me; the last bit of Patrick there, waiting.
This year, there have been three concurrent exhibitions to honor him in New Mexico, where he lived and taught at the University of New Mexico (UNM). The first to open, Patrick Nagatani: A Survey of Early Photographs, at the university’s museum, provided insight into the beginning of his career, while the second, at the New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMoA) in Santa Fe, titled Patrick Nagatani: Invented Realities, includes a variety of mid-career work. Both exhibitions draw parallels between his cinematic influences (he was a scale model builder on several Hollywood films in the 1970s), and the collagist, iconographic, material-based approach of his mentor, Robert Heinecken, whose own critically-minded work examined the social effects of mass media through contrasting found images and photographs as material. These cinematic influences led Patrick to use the camera like a director of a film, something which comes across in his series “Celestial Earthscapes” (1979 – 1981) and “Chromatherapy" (1978 – 2007)—respectively on view in these exhibitions—for which he utilized the wide-format perspective and dramatic lighting associated with sci-fi cinema. Adopting what critic A.D. Coleman termed the “Directorial Mode” of photography, in which an artist stages subject matter explicitly for the camera, and expects the viewer to suspend disbelief, Patrick found a way to work with photography as a conduit of critical contemplation, and as a material worthy of manipulation.1
The effects of the nuclear age became a major, career-spanning theme for Patrick—born a sansei, or third-generation Japanese-American—first appearing in his 1983 studio-based collaboration with painter Andrée Tracey, the “Nagatani-Tracey Collaboration,” in which the artists created wild tableaus of invented nuclear episodes in the U.S. using layered objects and photographs in front of painted backdrops. (Several examples of these large-format Polaroids are included in the exhibitions.) This process opened up the methodology for which he would become known: a unique mix of the “Directorial Mode” and collagist approaches as a way to explore complex social and personal themes. It also led him to perhaps his most famous series, “Nuclear Enchantment" (1988 – 1993), a play on the state motto of New Mexico, “The Land of Enchantment.” The forty works in this portfolio examine, at times with irony and humor, New Mexico as a stage for the invention and testing of the atomic bomb and the effects of nuclear proliferation and radiation, particularly on the state’s indigenous cultures, as well as larger themes surrounding spirituality, technology, militarism, and the environment. These photographs depict scenes ranging from Koshare clowns against missiles dotting a yellow-skied landscape, to jars of ashes labelled with Japanese names against a museum display on the “effects of the nuclear weapons,” to uranium-soaked landscapes, missile-fronted military bases, and groups of Japanese tourists—in which Patrick appears himself slyly looking back at the camera, and thus the viewer—heedlessly photographing the Trinity nuclear test sites under a reddened sky. The final photograph in this body of work, Generation to Generation, West Mesa, Albuquerque, NM (1991), shows Patrick and his son overlooking Albuquerque with SDI satellites, colloquially known as “Star Wars” satellites, in the sky as a black rain falls, similar to the one that fell over Hiroshima after the blast. “This work has been done for the future generations, for people to actually deal with the environment… so that we will leave a planet for the young people in the future,” he said of the project.2
The “Japanese-American Concentration Camp” portfolio (1993–1995), which Patrick began after “Nuclear Enchantment” was complete, and can be seen at the NMMoA, was of particular relevance to his own familial story. The poignance of the work in Santa Fe comes from the fact that his grandfather was interned at the camp there. (Both of his parents were also interned—his mother, in California; his father, in Arkansas—and met in Chicago, where Patrick was born in 1945, “just days after an atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima, his family’s hometown.”3) The J.A.C.C. portfolio was born out of his desire to record the landscapes in which his family had been incarcerated, and was the only body of work that he photographed directly, without constructing sets or post-process manipulation. He felt that each landscape, many of which have no markings or monuments, was already in a process of erasure, and so already “manipulated.” Each photograph, rendered as a bluish deadpan scene, offers a sobering reflection on memory and stories lost to time. As sly and clever as his work can often be, Patrick ultimately had humanistic aims for his photography, using the medium as a device to tell stories and to teach his viewers compassion.
I visited Albuquerque in June for the opening of the third exhibition, Excavations: Buried Cars and Other Stories, at the Albuquerque Art Museum (AAM). This show, curated by Joseph Traugott, is the most extensive of the three and, although other works are exhibited, meant the most to me personally because of its focus on the “Nagatani / Ryoichi Excavations” (1985 – 2000). The 15-year-long “Excavations” would culminate in the posthumously published book expanding upon this series titled Buried Cars (edited by Traugott and released in April 2018).
The photographs, of buried cars partially unearthed at famous sites (Stonehenge, Lascaux, and Chichen Itza to name a few), chronicle an absurdist narrative of an archeological expedition:
A Japanese archeologist named Ryoichi and a TV crew come to the United States and discover a strange burial ritual, a BMW erected on a scaffold. They record it and move on. In 1986 at a Las Vegas poker game—Patrick was an incredible poker player—Ryoichi and his crew learn of another ritual involving a car in Arizona. They head there and record it. On the drive out, they discover an automobile accident. Inside is a dying shaman who gives them a map to ‘car burials’ all over the world. Ryoichi realizes the need for scientific investigation and contacts Patrick Nagatani, along with his assistant, Colin Edgington, to help with the photographic record. And off the group goes around the world digging up buried cars for years until they hit Uluru rock in Australia. Realizing the nature of their project to be inherently invasive and destructive, they disband.
These photographs do not show actual cars unearthed at actual sites, but are rather scale models lit and set against photographic backdrops to look photographically credible. Their function as narrative devices relies on Patrick’s successful placing of the images in that gray area between believability and disbelief—the one he felt contained the possibility of magic.
The physical and conceptual construction of “Excavations” had a deep impact on my growth as an image-maker, and it was this series that prompted me to seek out Patrick’s specific mentorship. At the end of the Spring 2003 semester, I visited his studio for the first time. Arriving early, I sat on the concrete stairs that led up, in a tapered fashion, from the sidewalk to a second-floor door until Patrick showed up with Annie (the same stairs I would wait on each visit after). As we came in, he made us tea in the small kitchen at the front, and then we walked back through a small hallway leading to the back room with bamboo shades, an old TV on a rolling cart, bookshelves, a couch, and his workspace. I asked him about the construction of his “Excavations,” how he built them and photographed them. I wanted to know how photography could be used to tell a fictional story while still speaking critically on the social nature of photography—its veracity and mendacity. In a way, what he taught me taught me about writing, too: about the necessity of craft and detail (hours sanding miniature tools); about drawing connections; about the importance of play and the usefulness of humor; and of course, about leaving room for magic. It was a revelatory moment seeing the process behind his “Excavations,” and listening to him speak about his practice, his ideas and interests, his family, his students, his life—a sharing that, unbeknownst to me then, would continue on to, and beyond, his death. By the end of my visit that day it had grown dark and I found myself descending those stairs with a dusty shoebox full of pic-axes, shovels, ladders, crates, and tiny shoe prints carved out of cork and balsam—the very same I had seen in the photographs depicting half-buried cars in mid-excavation.
In 2016, Patrick suggested I present “Excavations” at the Society of Photographic Education’s National Conference in Las Vegas (30 years after Ryoichi’s poker game). I accepted with the idea that I’d tell the story “like one would around a campfire.” After the talk, I sent the complete narrative I had written to Patrick and he asked if it could be included in a then forthcoming book on the work, Buried Cars. “Except,” he continued, “I’d like for it to appear as an interview with you.” This was Patrick, ever the trickster and collaborator: I was Colin, his student and friend, but also this other Colin, the gambling photographer’s assistant, who disappeared at the end of the project only to reappear in 2016 to give a talk in Las Vegas. And I wasn’t alone. He gave colleagues, friends, and students a chance to share in his work: something that most artists keep private or owned. He believed that collaborating elevated art to something that would, like old tales, continue living with those who continued living. Buried Cars contains the interview: Patrick asking me about our journey together, and me answering, telling his story back to him in my words. Do you see the beauty in this?
The impact of a true mentor extends beyond the hyper-focused point of the classroom; and in my case, it extended beyond even the practice of photography to include much of my life. I stayed an extra year at UNM in order to be around him longer, though I should have known then that his mentorship would not quit once I left New Mexico on my own forking path. There were times I struggled and would reach out. Patrick always remained an open channel. He would pose short questions: “Can you work angry?” “Where is the magic?” This kind of gesture, a kind of koan both funny and potent, was the core of his teaching for me. It wasn’t always technical or traditionally didactic and was never pedantic. Instead, it ran to the pit of things and stuck there, a seed that grows over time.
In 2005, when I was living in Illinois, he called me, and I could tell something was off. We chatted briefly, but then there was a silence. I could feel him in that silence. I asked, “Patrick?” This is when I learned he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He beat it then, but it came back. In June 2017, I flew out to see him, but each day he was too sick for visitors. I texted him the night before leaving, hoping, foolishly, that his situation had changed. He texted back “I’m so sorry colin… travel safe and be well and forgive me for now… love you.” I sent back, “I love you too Patrick,” and I do. His teaching never ended for me, and I don’t think it ever will. There is a power to actual mentorship that transcends social structure, systems of power, traditional instruction, and ideas of success. Rather, it is a part of the unseen, a growth occurring internally and expressing itself outwardly and continuously in ways that are sometimes intangible.
Our word “mentor” comes from a character in Homer’s The Odyssey. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, takes the form of Mentor to wake the mind of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, from naïveté—from unknowing, to knowing—and subsequently to spur him to action. Connecting, waking, calling a person to action—that is mentorship. For me, and others, Patrick went from a teacher to a mentor to a deeply important friend, and then, became a Rōshi, the wise one. His teaching, a lifelong duration of connections, wakings, and actions, drawn like the end of one thread wrapping around the middle of another from generation to generation, is a teaching carried by the ancients.
- Coleman, A.D. “The Directorial Mode: Notes Towards a Definition.” Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, by Vicki Goldberg, Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2008, pp. 480–491. The essay originally appeared in Artforum, Sept. 1976.
- Nagatani, Patrick. “New Mexico's Nuclear Enchantment.” Colores, PBS, 30 Sept. 1991.
- Roberts, Sam. “Patrick Nagatani, Photographer Famous for Collages, Dies at 72.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/obituaries/patrick-nagatani-photographer-famous-for-collages-dies-at-72.html.