ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Patrick Nagatani was consistently unpredictable.
The late Albuquerque photographer juxtaposed military sites with monuments, Hopi dancers with missiles, Japanese tourists and self-images in cascades of contradictions.
The University of New Mexico is honoring that legacy with a survey of Nagatani’s early photographs opening in the Raymond Jonson Gallery of the UNM Art Museum on Friday.
The exhibition showcases 50 foundational works photographed in Los Angeles before Nagatani’s move to New Mexico, where he taught at UNM from 1987-2007. It was here that he produced his best-known series, including his large-scale Polaroids and “Nuclear Enchantment” photographs about the development of atomic weapons and their environmental consequences.
The show focuses on the photographer’s development throughout and beyond graduate school at the University of California/Los Angeles.
“He was a pioneer in color photography,” UNM curator Mary Statzer said. “He used color to great effect; very deliberately. I also love his use of the directorial mode – the use of sets and models.”
Nagatani taught high school drafting for 10 years before he entered graduate school. Later, he worked in Hollywood making special effects models for film, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner.” He transposed these skills into phantasmagorical collages.
Many, if not most, of Nagatani’s early images have never been shown, Statzer said.
The earliest works date to the 1970s capturing ephemeral moments on the streets of Los Angeles or models acting out scenes in enigmatic urban spaces.
“Patrick, Johnie, Dave, On the Road” (1976) encapsulates the exuberance of the young as the artist takes to the road with two friends.
“I just love how youthful it is,” Statzer said. “It looks like a road trip many of us took in our 20s.”
The series “Chroma Room” was inspired when Nagatani picked up a pamphlet on chromatherapy.
“That was a New Age sort of method of healing through the use of colored lights,” Statzer said. “He took a room in a house and over a year he painted it 11 different times in eight different colors and photographed it.”
The decadent “Beverly Hills” series drew from a single 1980 evening where he was hired to photograph a decadent bar mitzvah where the rock band Devo entertained the crowd.
“It’s 1980; they probably were stoned,” Statzer said. “That paper backdrop starts out whole; by the end of the evening it was in tatters. He saw it as his first opportunity to watch people’s personas and egos play out.”
Nagatani’s “Celestial Earthscapes” series grew from his time working at the Jet Propulsion Lab in an homage to images generated by spacecraft. The photographer traveled to the desert with mirrors, metal and foil to create sets resembling images taken from space. In “Kosmopolites” he shot women wearing clothing and masks of their own choosing. The work was in part an homage to the early 20th century photographer E.J. Bellocq, who photographed women in New Orleans’ red light district.
Nagatani died of colon cancer in November 2017.
“He was incredibly bright and witty,” Statzer said. “(I met him when) I was a week into the job and he was very sick. He was very willing to talk about anything I asked. Not everybody wants to talk about 40 years ago.”