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Renowned art photographer Patrick Nagatani dies

An internationally renowned photographer who explored New Mexico’s nuclear legacy and conjured a novel about women pilots died Friday.

Patrick Nagatani passed away on Friday, Oct. 27.

Patrick Nagatani died in his Albuquerque home after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 72.

A University of New Mexico emeritus professor who taught photography from 1987 to 2007, Nagatani was known for creating mythical compositions using laboratories, landscapes, military sites, memorials, Native American reservations, Japanese tourists and himself in recurring motifs.

He took on subjects as dark as the Japanese internment camps that once housed his parents to the Atomic Age and his own fanciful series on women airplane pilots. That idea germinated from a British newspaper article about the discovery of 36 Spitfire airplanes buried in Burma after World War II.

In the series of photographs, each pilot got her own biography, as well as her own constructed plastic model plane converted into a float plane.

That series would eventually become “The Race,” a novel Nagatani helped launch at an Albuquerque Museum book signing a week before his death.

“He sat there and personalized the books for every single person who stood in line,” said Kate Ware, curator of photography for the New Mexico Museum of Art. The museum houses about 145 examples of his work, many of them donated by the artist. The UNM Art Gallery also features 254 of his photographs in its collections.

The Albuquerque Museum owns more than 100 of his photographs and three of his series, including “Nuclear Enchantment.”

“We kept joking that Patrick was living for the next event,” curator of art Andrew Connors said. “He was about work. He was this incredible creator who makes photographs unlike anybody else’s.”

His works were often disturbing, funny and deadpan at the same time.

Patrick Nagatani also taught at the University of New Mexico. (Courtesy of Adrienne Salinger)

“Patrick was one of the pioneers of constructive photography in America,” Santa Fe gallery owner Andrew Smith said. “He might use a photograph or a photograph of a painting as the background, then he would hang objects in front of the photograph.”

Nagatani was born to Japanese-American parents in Chicago just days after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. That personal history would lead to his development of series on both the camps and “Nuclear Enchantment,” 40-some photo-dramas depicting the birth of the Nuclear Age in New Mexico. The images encompass everything from a Grants restaurant named the Uranium Cafe to Navajo tract homes sprouting amidst uranium tailings and radioactive sediment in Los Alamos.

“He’s a world-renowned artist who helped to put Albuquerque on the map of where important work was being made,” said Suzanne Sbarge, executive director of 516 ARTS.

The theatrical nature of his work dated to his experience in the film industry during the 1970s, where he built special effects models for films such as “Bladerunner” (1982) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977).

Later, he would create work as a self-described, self-invented “tape-ist.” His “Tape-estries” explored his Buddhist roots after being raised Catholic by his Japanese-American parents . He spray-painted Catholic and Christian images he photographed across Europe, using masking tape to protect the areas he decided to leave bare.

Valerie Roybal, curator of the recent 516 ARTS “Cross Pollination” exhibition, worked with Nagatani as an editor and graphic designer at UNM. In 2014 they would co-curate “Adaptations: Visual Artists Work with Profound Disease and Illness.”

“We were cancer survivors together,” she said. “We were on a similar path; we really bonded that way. We have (chemotherapy) ports in our chests and he would be like, ‘Show me your port.’

“It wasn’t even as a joke; it was to embrace it in this honest, big-hearted way.”

Roybal continued: “Some people don’t want to hear about it because it’s scary. He was very open about it. We kept track of each other. He and I would geek out on all that because it was important to both of us to understand.

“I saw him at the book signing a week ago,” Roybal said. “I kind of figured it was his last act. Leigh Anne (his wife) said he was determined to do it.”

“Patrick Nagatani: Living in the Story,” a documentary about Nagatani, will be released in 2018. His brother Scott Nagatani wrote the music for the soundtrack.

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