Patrick Nagatani challenged the medium he worked in, creating smart, often surprising photographs that hummed with their questions. And he broached the big questions—on spirituality, the construction of self, how we heal and how we fit into the puzzle of the natural world. The mysteries and unpredictability of Nagatani's career surface in his early works, too, which are opening soon at an exhibition at the UNM Museum of Art simply titled Patrick Nagatani: A Survey of Early Photographs. The exhibition was unveiled during a formal reception on Friday, April 27. Many more events in conjunction with the exhibition will be held on campus, including a print viewing with the show's curator, Mary Statzer, on June 7. More information on such events is online at artmuseum.unm.edu.
Before the show's opening, Statzer unpacked the process of curating it and the enduring beauty of the artist's work, in particular these images culled from a huge cache of photographs that Nagatani donated to the museum before his death last autumn.
Alibi: How was this selection of photos chosen from amongst the works donated by Nagatani to the museum?
Statzer: When I realized that Nagatani created nearly all of these photographs before or during graduate school, I was blown away. I thought, OK, this is who he was as an artist before he arrived at UNM and became the professor and nationally recognized photographer we know him as today. I decided to tell that story—that these are foundational works made in Los Angeles when he was a young artist. I wanted to represent all of the bodies of work from this period so that the viewer could have the same sense of discovery that I experienced.
How do they speak to his later work?
Chroma Room, from 1977, is an early example of how he orchestrated set-ups, props and models. Furthermore, color is carefully considered and manipulated, not incidental or merely descriptive. Color is an important aspect of the work’s content. This is especially true of Chromatherapy and the later 20x24 Polaroids. … Nagatani had an obsessive aspect to his personality. To take examples from the early work, he made something like 300 photographs of partygoers in one evening for A Party, Beverly Hills, U.S.A. For Chroma Rooms, he painted the same room in his house 13 times and lived in it to see what effect the color would have on him. He used that focused attention and drive … throughout his career.
What do you hope visitors might come to understand by enjoying these works?
Nagatani’s work is grounded in the West. His work speaks, in a sophisticated way, about the places in the western United States where he lived. For example, he began the series Nuclear Enchantment the year after he arrived in New Mexico. It is of and about the history of this place. Similarly, the work in the exhibition is informed by Los Angeles—the artifice of Hollywood, the ready acceptance of fads, the influence of science and technology and the fact that photography in Southern California was less tradition-bound at the time than in any other part of the country.
Did you, yourself, learn anything in putting together this exhibition?
In the process of conducting my research for the show, I talked with Scott Rankin, a video artist and friend of Nagatani’s since graduate school. He told me about Patrick’s driving need to work. I’d always thought of him as an idea-driven artist but Scott emphasized his skill and commitment to the manual labor of making things. Of course, this makes complete sense when one considers the weeks and months of work that went into creating the sets for the large Polaroids, which were torn down as soon as the exposure was made.
Do you have any particular favorites among these works?
When I first saw the photographs that he gave to the museum, the biggest surprise for me was the 1978 series, A Party, Beverly Hills, U.S.A. They are black and white and don’t involve his characteristic set-ups and directing people in them. In fact, they are quite the opposite. He simply set up a paper backdrop and the camera and let people present themselves as they wished. I love that lack of control. I’m also attracted to the way that the photographs cut to the chase, using sharp wit and an economy of means. They comment on Beverly Hills society in the late ’70s without being preachy. These photographs feel remarkably current to me. One has the sense that even though there was a photographer present, it was all about how people were relating to one another in front of a camera. In that way, they read like selfies. I also love the invention found in Chromatherapy, which Nagatani sustained for over 25 years. He took an idea from his first year in graduate school and ran with it, putting it through its paces. … The impetus for making the work—the combination of color, light and healing–still had currency for him in the early 2000s. That’s true commitment to personal vision.