Renowned photographer plays with the truth with a bit of humor

Patrick Nagatani excavated cars from Stonehenge to the Grand Canyon.

A new exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum showcases the work of the internationally renowned photographer in “Excavation: Buried Cars and Other Stories” through Sept. 23.

Nagatani was not an archaeologist. As far as anyone knows, he never even attended an actual dig. The late University of New Mexico professor created the 29 images through photography and model cars, grounded in a story about burials at energetic power sites by a mysterious cult of shamans.

The series challenges common beliefs that photographs always depict the truth. They also demonstrate the late artist’s ironic sense of humor as cars emerge from the Sonoran Desert to New Mexico’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“Patrick made these photos from sets he put together of cars in various contexts,” curator Joseph Traugott said. “In the end, people realize that these are staged images.”

The exhibition also features photographs from Nagatani’s 2017 novel “The Race,” the story of a competition about women flying World War II Spitfires from Japan to the U.S.

“His point is powerful women are able to make the kind of society we are all seeking,” Traugott said. “It’s a very feminist point of view.”

The museum is adding selections from Nagatani’s “Nuclear Enchantment” series. The images address the contradictions arising from the genesis of the atomic industry in New Mexico.

There’s “Nuki-Sushi.”

“It shows Patrick as a sushi chef about to serve two colleagues,” Traugott said. “The nuclear bomb has gone off and everything is flying. It’s an unforgettable image.”

Traugott worked with Nagatani on a companion book for the exhibition. The photographer died of cancer in 2017.

“He was incredibly bright,” Traugott said, “and even in the midst of going through horrible cancer treatment, he could go play blackjack. He was a voracious reader. His pieces have resonance with a very broad audience.”

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