Patrick Nagatani | Living in the Story

“Living in the Story” documents the life history of photographer Patrick Nagatani. The film traces the journey of the artist through exploration into each of his major collections through interviews of Nagatani himself. At the time of filming, Nagatani had developed stage 4 cancer and had undergone 71 chemotherapy treatments. However, the man seen on screen exuded an undeniable energy that revealed life and excitement. The manner in which he spoke about the worlds he created supported director Lynn Estomin’s introduction of the film. She explained how Nagatani would see something in the real world the size of a speck and would be inspired to complete an entire body of work around it. She spoke of an instance when Nagatani found an inch- long article about spitfire planes being buried in Burma during WWII and that was enough to get the inspiration to create. His work not only proves him to be a story creator but also a story teller. The quiet documentation of Japanese-American concentration camps in the middle of his career demonstrate that he was a master of capturing the emotion of an underlying story. His fascination behind nuclear destruction displays both his playfulness as well as his political activism. In the film, Nagatani expresses his confusion over the investment of massive amounts of money into nuclear industries to build weapons that are built for one purpose- the end of the world. He explains that the money that goes into one of these weapons would be enough to feed the homeless for an entire year.

Nuclear Enchantment is a series of photographs showing the interaction between the destruction of nuclear weapons and the consequences of these weapons on life as we know it. Nagatani was born days after the Hiroshima bombing and had kept returning to this subject matter throughout his life’s work. The project contains elaborate, built sets within the context of nuclear test sites. The sets are built in a collage-like format, blurring the line of what objects are constructed and what objects are captured in the photograph. The photos are printed large onto upwards of 17x22 and blanketed with loud, saturated color fields. Almost all of the photos in the series include a subject entering one of the bottom corners, creating an artificial, warped perspective; there is no rectangular depth of field. Nagatani was not aiming for a photorealistic end result, rather he was blending the ideas of photo and fantasy. Estomin explains that Nagatani admired how people could believe. Nagatani realized that there was no truth in a photograph. He simply wanted to find the magic inside of a story. His whimsical use of color and choices of pasted content matter supports that he was not searching to capture reality but looking to create a reproduction of a moment. In

Trinity Site, Nagatani constructs depth through varying scales of subjects. The content of the photo is a depiction of a group of tourists taking a photo in front of a marker for the world’s first nuclear device was exploded. This image is juxtaposed by an explosion of red in the background that leaks into the foreground affecting the hue of the subjects in the foreground. There is a force-field sense of depth created by the placement of the tourists around the bottom edge of the frame. Nagatani immersed himself inside the image. This combination of real and artificial construction may speak towards the pouring of funds into nuclear industries to make bigger and better weapons. The perception that the development of these technologies promote safety and protection are challenged by the reality that these weapons lead to absolute destruction.

Japanese-American C.C. pushes against Nagatani’s usual work. The series consists of photographs taken of unaltered landscapes of concentration camps used to detain Japanese- Americans in the 1940s. The entire series is connected through a common horizon line bisecting the images, except for two images. This choice results in a feeling of absolute desolation. Nagatani has stripped down all of his whimsical choices in his other works to simply document a place in time. The work represents a new generation of Japanese-Americans who were able to ask their parents to open up about these concentration camps that was previously not talked about due to shame and guilt. The landscapes contain memory and a haunting feeling of a covered up truth. Topaz is one of two photos in the series that do not conform to the same composition as the others. The photo has a simple subject matter of a rusted toy truck placed in a backdrop of cracked dirt. The toy truck was the only remnant of the time period that Nagatani could find. The rust and weeds covering the truck document a natural shrouding that was proven to be too powerful an image to not include in the final series. The repeating pattern of the cracked ground adds to the sense of desolation that is accomplished in other photos through the empty sky.

Photography can stop and manipulate moments in time. Nagatani was unique in his ability to document his own construction of a moment in reality. There is ambiguity between what is a prop and what is being “photographed” as one’s eyes travel to the back of the photo. There is no way of telling at what point which photos were taken when. Photos have this ability to travel through time. Nagatani realized this and proceeded to develop incredible stories through the use of this concept.