From the ghost photography of the Victorian era to the airbrushed portraits of today’s models and celebrities, it’s clear that pictures are not always what they appear. And while some images are meant to deceive, others are clearly manipulated, tweaked to amuse or challenge, educate or outrage.
Count Patrick Nagatani (1945–2017) among those for whom photography was more than a matter of pure optics. Chicago-born and California-bred, he devoted much of his effort to addressing the multi-faceted fallout of the atomic age. Chain Reaction: The Photography of Patrick Nagatani — on view at the Bruce Museum June 27 through Oct. 31 — offers a good look at the photographer’s concerns and how he used his chosen medium to open eyes and minds.
With his Nuclear Enchantment series, Nagatani — a Japanese American born just days after the Enola Gay dropped its devastating bomb on Hiroshima — combined symbols and figures from Japanese and Native American cultures and images of uranium-mining facilities and the Western landscape. The resulting wildly artificial mash-ups operate much like the work of El Lissitzky, the Russian artist and polemicist whose work captured and critiqued the dynamism and dysfunction of the 20th century.
Trinitite, Ground Zero, Trinity Site, New Mexico features the obelisk erected in 1965 to mark that first atomic blast, the distant Oscura Mountains, and a hazmat-suited figure holding an umbrella as shards of the jade-like material caused by the explosion rain down. The photo, explains curator Stephanie Guyet, encompasses the major themes that play out in this work, including a recognition of the environment before and after technological desecration and the myth-making of history. “Rather than approach the weighty material with straightforward solemnity, Nagatani chooses instead a unique blend of allusion and illusion,” Guyet says, “a nod and a wink, referencing the whole sequence in a single, surreal flash.”
Golden Eagle, United Nuclear Corporation Uranium Mill and Tailings, Churchrock, New Mexico is grounded with a shot of the site of a 1979 accident — in which more radioactive material was released than at Three Mile Island — and augmented with a cut-out of a flying eagle pinched from the work of Hiroshige, the renowned 19th-century Japanese landscape artist. “In drawing on the work of Hiroshige, Nagatani simultaneously cites an artistic and cultural forbear and creates a link between pre-westernized Japan and contemporary New Mexico,” Guyet says.
Discussing his work, Nagatani wrote, “I hope that Nuclear Enchantment is thought-provoking, yet technically brilliant, and richly beautiful despite the grim tidings. Like the macabre yet jewel-like images from medieval books of hours dealing with the Office of the Dead, I point a bony finger at the contemporary dance of death we are on the verge of joining.”
Chain Reaction: The Photography of Patrick Nagatani
Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich
On display June 27–Oct. 31