Patrick Nagatani created photographs to showcase the innovation that resided in his head.
Some pieces were controversial, but they always started conversation.
Nagatani’s pieces are complex and a perfect example of “directed photography,” in which each element rests with intent. He died of colon cancer in November 2017.
It’s taken two years for filmmaker Lynn Estomin to carefully cultivate the stories – all leading to Nagatani.
The result is the documentary “Living in the Story: Patrick Nagatani,” which will premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, and at 11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, on New Mexico PBS. The film documents 35 years of Nagatani’s art-making.
Estomin came to the project because of Andrew Smith and Miguel Gandert.
Smith runs the Andrew Smith Gallery, formerly in Santa Fe and now in Tucson, and Gandert is a professor at the University of New Mexico. The pair produced the film with Nagatani’s brother, Scott, who also composed the music.
The pair had been working on a legacy project, in which artists talked about their own work, so that future art historians can have oral biographies directly from the artists.
“Patrick is very interesting and animated,” Estomin says. “(Andrew and Miguel) realized that this could be just more than something stashed away from an archive and if they could make a popular film, it would be better.”
Nagatani was born in Chicago in 1945, 13 days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
His parents were second-generation Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in separate camps during World War II; his mother in Manzanar, California, and his father in Jerome, Arkansas.
In the late 1970s, Nagatani pioneered the Contemporary Constructed Photographic Movement in Los Angeles, developing a new visual vocabulary by constructing tableau photographs from sets, sculptures, models and paintings.
Film footage from the early 1980s shows Nagatani working like a stage director in a cavernous Los Angeles studio with the painter Andrée Tracey, as they shoot 20- by 24-inch Polaroid photographs of life-size constructed tableaus.
These lurid, darkly humorous scenes depict ordinary people eating, watching TV or riding the subway who are startled out of complacency by a nuclear holocaust, an earthquake or a tidal wave.
The challenge, Nagatani says in the film, “was to show actual objects and people flying through the air, no longer moored to solid ground.”
He moved to Albuquerque in 1987 to teach at the University of New Mexico.
That’s when he embarked on “Nuclear Enchantment” (1988-1993).
The 40 photo-dramas depict New Mexico as the birthplace of the Atomic Age, where weapons technology and radioactive waste sites butt up against ancient and modern Southwestern cultures.
The diverse works are dazzling and disturbing – Pueblo Koshare clowns dance next to nuclear missiles, while radioactive bats swarm out of Carlsbad Caverns.
Estomin says the film portrays an artist deeply concerned and well-informed about world events who uses imagery, storytelling and narrative fiction to raise awareness about modern anxieties, with an emphasis on the threat of nuclear weapons technology.
Nagatani has also explored healing techniques and states of consciousness in which the material world is transcended.
Despite the serious content of his subject matter, his innovative images are compelling and entertaining.
“As an artist that deals with political issues, Patrick took serious issues and used humor and constructed sets to draw people in,” Estomin says.
Estomin arrived in Albuquerque for the film, and Nagatani was very ill.
“He had his 71st chemotherapy treatment the day I arrived,” she says. “I did some catch-up audio work. For the most part, interviews were captured by Polaroid. I had to take 25 hours of interviews and boil it down to less than an hour.”
Estomin found the project both difficult and easy.
“Patrick is very much a director, and he directed the sets to make his photographs,” she says. “He had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. On the other hand, it was difficult because the interviews weren’t done with a popular audience in mind. There were curators asking him questions. I had to cut out the people that were interrupting him. I wanted him to tell his story. That’s what makes this project special. What the audience is seeing is Patrick telling his own story.”
Estomin is honored to work on this project.
She met Nagatani over 20 years ago and become friends with the artist.
“Patrick was an amazing mentor whose enthusiasm for life and photography and his innovative approach to combining storytelling, history, politics, identity, community and multiple mediums into seamless imagery greatly influenced my own approach to creating art on political and cultural issues,” she says. “He was a kind, gentle, thoughtful, compassionate and generous person. I was honored and humbled to collaborate on creating ‘Living in the Story,’ a documentary about his life and work. I say ‘collaborate’ because filmmaking is always a collaborative process, but also because Patrick was very much a partner in this project. It is his story; the film is driven by his personality, storytelling and art.”