This Week in Photography Books: Patrick Nagatani

 

It’s Thanksgiving day, and unfortunately I’m working.

Weekly-column-deadlines being what they are, it was time to sit down and write. But don’t feel too bad for me.

It’s work, yes, but writing for you guys is not exactly like digging ditches. And I should know, as one day a year, I have to hook up with my neighbors to clean our acequia system. (Ditches, that is.)

But once I’m done here, I get to turn my attention to the festivities. There’s gravy to make, Brussels sprouts to wash, nephews to enjoy, football to watch, and plenty of turkey to eat.

Here in America, Thanksgiving is the one day a year that we all agree to eat a giant, dead bird.

(And typically a flavorless one, though my Mom’s brining technique at least keeps it moist.)

It used to be my favorite holiday, growing up in New Jersey. We’d get together at my Aunt Lynda’s house each year, in East Brunswick, and playing football in the yard with my cousins was Just. The. Best.

As a grownup though, (particularly one who has to host the feast, having been anointed by the grandmas a few years back,) I tend to focus more on the obligation of it all.

Each year, I like it less.

And to top it off, I had to be honest with my 10-year-old about the fact that while the Pilgrims and Native Americans might have gotten along at one point, (however briefly,) after that, our ancestors killed them all and took their land.

Yay!
Let’s eat.

But seriously, the holiday is called Thanksgiving. The idea of giving thanks, of sharing appreciation, of taking stock and being grateful for what you have, it’s baked into the title.

If we divest ourselves of any necessary connection to 17th Century Massachusetts, and think about a Holiday just for being thankful, then I can get behind that.

And as it’s just past 8am, and I’m mostly done here, maybe I’ll just find a way to have fun today?

Maybe I’ll thank my parents for helping out with my kids all the time? And thank my wife for working so hard?

I can thank you guys, for being a loyal audience. And thank my teachers, who helped me become the person I am.

Just last week, in fact, I went back to UNM, in Albuquerque, and gave a talk to Jim Stone’s Intermediate Photo class. We sat in a high tech digital lab, painted in sleek dark gray, yet I remembered learning in that same room, 20 years ago, when it had a few tables and chairs, and maybe a blackboard.

I took Photo 1 in that very room, in 1997, and now it’s 2017. You can’t top that: the 20 year anniversary.

Even better, not only did I tell the students about my work, but I also offered them the chance to critique something new I’m working on. Though they were only in their second semester, the students were amazing, and gave me some great ideas that I’ve already put into practice less than a week later.

So thank you, Jim Stone’s UNM students. I really appreciate the help.

I was lucky, back in 1998, to have a class with Patrick Nagatani at UNM. He’d already been there for a while, having studied at UCLA with the great Robert Heinecken. Patrick had been successful as an artist, including a fruitful partnership with Andrée Tracey.

By the time I met him, he was in the prime of life, and was extremely influential in helping me understand how to make art. Not to just click a shutter, but to have an idea in mind. To have a point. And to be willing to push yourself to make things you hadn’t seen before.

Now that I think about it, Patrick also told me to call Bill Hunt, when I was headed to NYC that year, and not only did Bill agree to see me, but he bought a picture out of the box, and helped me get my art career off the ground.

I’ve thanked Bill before, but I don’t know if I ever thanked Patrick.

He died a few weeks ago, after a 10 year bout with cancer.

Patrick Nagatani, a Japanese-American, got himself an obituary in the New York Times, because he mattered as an artist, yet it’s the one “honor” that no one ever knows they’ve received.

I last saw him, 3 or 4 years ago, outside a gallery in Santa Fe. He was being trailed by a Japanese documentary film crew, and kept stepping outside for smoke breaks.

I chatted him up, in the cool breeze, and his positive energy was infectious. The guy was the real deal as an artist too. We’d met in his studio, back in 2009, and he showed me work in which he’d appropriated low-res images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, enlarged and printed them, and then coated them with perfectly constructed strips of colored tape.

It’s hard to describe how lovely they were, and how exacting and tricky they were to make. Zen as shit too. (I doubt that sentence has ever been written before.)

Patrick did one project in which he created an altar ego, Ryoichi, and made models implying there had been previous versions of humanity that had existed, and then become extinct.

Weird stuff.

He was creative, and original, and my favorite work, by far, was “Nuclear Enchantment,” published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 1991.

I’ve never reviewed a book before that wasn’t current, but then again, Thanksgiving is no ordinary day. It’s also the 6th anniversary of the birth of this column: the night my mother-in-law woke us up by rapping a gun outside our bedroom door, and then I wrote about it in a Taryn Simon book review.

I was sad to see that I never had Patrick sign my copy, as I remember that I’d brought it into school once for that purpose. (Had I lost the nerve to ask, at the time?) But after skimming the informative, long essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, I dove right into the plates, and they hold up so well.

These pictures were made before digital reality. They are all old school: painted backdrops, real places, drawings, models, and real people, all overlaid, and shot multiple times on film, when necessary.

I believe he’d established the aesthetic in his work with Andrée Tracey, but damn if these images don’t perfectly anticipate the rise of our all-digital culture. Saturated colors, the real and the unreal intermingled, drawings mashed with photographs, all of it feels so current.

Photoshop was made for this stuff.
It’s so easy now.

But think about how hard it was back then, and how seamless the pictures are. (There are a few clunkers, but almost all are just amazing.)

These days, (as my Dad pointed out at dinner last night,) we’re always told to “stay in your lane.” Write or make art about what you know. Don’t try to interpret a culture that’s not your own.

We’ve been over this many times before, so I’ll spare you.

But Patrick Nagatani, who was born in 1945, and whose family back in Japan lived outside Hiroshima, was coming directly from his own cultural perspective by taking an interest in New Mexico’s nuclear history.

And the history of nuclear power.

So he researched it obsessively, with reams of help, and then titled his pictures in ways that would allow viewers access to crucial information.

Yet he also sampled directly from New Mexico’s Native American Pueblo culture, dropping layers of koshares and kachinas. These days, most people would shy away from that, but in “Nuclear Enchantment,” it’s just right.

Then, we’ve got to throw in the shoutouts to Hiroshige and Hokusai, the master Japanese 19th Century woodblock printmakers, as the dangling fish, and the soaring eagle/hawk, are direct references to their work.

Have you gotten all that yet?
I’ll summarize.

It’s historically accurate, well researched, analog tableaux work, that required teams of people to assist him, including his family, and blended Japanese-American, Japanese, and Native American art historical traditions, all while anticipating the predominant visual aesthetic of the next Century and Millennium.

Wow.

I’d also like to thank Martha Schneider, of the Schneider Gallery in Chicago.

We were chatting at Filter in September, and she told me that Patrick was very close to death. As he’d fought the vicious disease for so long, I was surprised to hear it had finally caught up with him.

She suggested I say my goodbyes while I could.

I wrote him, and we traded a few emails. I sent him blessings for his next journey, and I assure you, that’s not an email I’ve written before.

Patrick also insisted on having UNM send me a copy of his new novel, which I’m planning to read over Xmas break.

Jim Stone called Patrick the strongest man he’s ever known, and said he made it to his own book signing, just five days before he died.

Rest in Peace, Patrick.

And I hope the rest of you have a great holiday weekend. In these trying, Trumpian times, if you have people to be thank, I’d suggest you get on with it.

Bottom Line: An out-of-print masterpiece

To purchase “Nuclear Enchantment” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

 

 

Jonathan Blaustein

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