Patrick Nagatani, Novellas (1992-1997)
by Matthew Rana
Last spring, I became fascinated by Novellas (1992-97), a series of 30 or so images by my former professor of photography at the University of New Mexico, Patrick Nagatani. At the time, media was abuzz with talk of ‘fake news’, and the assaults on journalism then being made by the American president, and his now-former press secretary Sean Spicer.
Although this body of work was made over two decades ago during the high phase of postmodernism, its concerns around the way that truth is constructed resonated deeply. Its critical engagement that is, with the photographic image as a composite of interwoven narratives and suspensions of disbelief, felt timely and urgent against the backdrop of a politics increasingly stranger than fiction.
Like much of Patrick’s work, Novellas evokes the spectacular, media-saturated landscape of late capitalism. But unlike his better-known directorial projects, such as the collaborations between 1983 and 1989 with painter Andrée Tracey, which stage fictional scenarios in elaborate, often ambiguous tableaus, the Novellas are more collage-like in their approach. Using a variety of mediums and techniques to create densely layered compositions, they incorporate a broad range of imagery including advertisements, film stills, religious etchings and archival photographs.
As the title suggests, each image reads like fiction — a page or passage in a short story. Yet whereas Patrick’s other projects from the same period, such as Nuclear Enchantment (1988-93), Japanese-American Concentration Camps (1993-95), or Ryoichi Excavations (1985-2000), tend to cohere around a single theme, history or character, Novellas is more fragmented, and plays out on a distinctly personal register, exploring themes such as sexuality, spirituality, race and gender; symbolic anchor points of the self.
I was saddened to learn of Patrick’s passing last October, at the age of 72, following a decade-long battle with colon cancer. As way to remember his artistic legacy and vision, I want to offer a selection of his Novellas here: a sequence of five large-format Polaroids from 1994 in which covers from the now-defunct publication Weekly World News — a supermarket tabloid known for outlandishly manipulated photographs claiming to depict supernatural and paranormal phenomena — feature. Also appearing in each image, a $5 novelty photograph in which Patrick’s head is digitally superimposed atop a figure shaking hands with then-president Bill Clinton. The dissonance that these images create still feels oddly synchronous with, for instance, the curious mix of faith and paranoia that seems to structure the American imagination at present. They are Amazing, Divine, Miraculous, Spectacular, and Terrifying.