Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A New Nagatani

By Jeffrey Lee

MAY 18, 1998: 

"Relocation Camp" Photos Show Patrick Nagatani in a Different Light

"Relocation" is a mild-sounding euphemism. For that matter, so is "concentration camp," despite its horrific associations. Both terms have been used to describe the prison camps where thousands of Japanese-Americans were held during the Second World War. Patrick Nagatani's Virtual Pilgrimage at the Albuquerque Museum is a record of his visits to these sites. The series is not only a respectful historical document; because Nagatani's parents were imprisoned in the 1940s, it is also a very personal one.

Most of the work I've seen of Nagatani's is both brash and a little contrived: the cartoony montages and super-saturated colors of his Nuclear Enchantment series; the busy, layered photolithographs in last year's Works on Paper show at Richard Levy. It's hard to look at these pictures without being reminded that the UNM photography guru is an artist with considerable commercial appeal. But Virtual Pilgrimage exhibits another Nagatani altogether.

The muted images of Virtual Pilgrimage are pure documentary photography, firmly situated in the tradition of Walker Evans and Ansel Adams. They are unpeopled landscapes, distinguished, in most cases, only by the odd concrete slab or fragment of foundation. You wouldn't know what they were without the accompanying text. Like turn-of-the-century "landscape with ruins" scenes, they are peculiarly romantic: bleak, abandoned, haunted. Many of the photographs are deliberately printed dark, though all are daytime images that evidently use available light. Twice, the photographer uses the word "sentimental" to describe what he's doing--a word that would escape the lips of most artists only with a dismissive sneer.

Nagatani's technique, usually so dazzling, is subdued here, as if out of respect. One photograph hints (perhaps accidentally) at the familiar Nagatani palette: In one of the photographs, a bright red "Warning--Underground Cable" sign jumps alarmingly out of the foreground. For the most part, though, his colors are earthy grays, greens and browns. A smokestack rises from the middle of a planted field. A concrete memorial is surrounded by a circle of dirt that bears hundreds of recent footprints--the only image to portray a living, human presence rather than a ghostly one. A concrete vault of unknown purpose stands alone on a roadside.

Perhaps the most moving picture is one that shows the remains of a decorative pond--Nagatani calls it a "meditation pond"--built by camp inmates at Gila River, Ariz. A plain, very Japanese-looking circle of stones at the center of a dry, desolate landscape is all that is left of it. It's more heartbreaking than any recently erected monument.

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