Patrick Nagatani

Name Patrick Nagatani
Born August 19 1945
Died October 27 2017
Birth Location Chicago, Illinois
Generational Identifier


Sansei photographer and multimedia artist Patrick Nagatani (1945- ) creates visual works that explore political, cultural and historical themes such as the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience and the legacy of the nuclear bombing of Japan, and frequently builds and stages complex sets, or "photo-dramas," incorporating props, lighting, and actors into the frame to capture the stories he depicts.

He was born on August 19, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, mere days after the atomic bomb explosions in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where his father's family lived. His parents, John and Diane Nagatani, were imprisoned in different camps during World War II and relocated separately to Chicago, where they met, married and started a family, raising their son as a Catholic in a primarily Polish neighborhood in the Midwest. [1] Following graduation from high school, he attended the University of California, Los Angeles, matriculating with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1968 and his Masters of Fine Arts in 1980, again from UCLA. While a graduate student in photography at UCLA in the late 1970s, Nagatani and two other graduate students collaborated on an exhibition and book project juxtaposing the work of two photographers who had recorded Manzanar during World War II: Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake . The exhibition/book, Two Views of Manzanar, was an early indication of his interest in the concentration camps and his respect for the two photographers' work, and was mounted at UCLA’s Frederick S. Wight Gallery in October 1977.

Although Nagatani wasn't formally trained in photography, having never taken a technical photo class, from 1975 to 1983, he "sponged everything photographic," taking photographic theory class and reading everything he could about the technical aspects of photography. [2] Influenced by his teacher and mentor from UCLA, Robert Heinecken, in the mid-1970s Nagatani decided to disregard "photographic truth" and to seek what he calls "the façade of representation." [3] Also during this period of his life, Nagatani worked as a model maker for a company that made sets for movies and television, skills that he later applied applied to his staged photography in the manner of a film director, such as the series "Nagatani/Tracey Polaroid Collaborations (1983-1989)" that he worked on from 1983–89 in collaboration with artist Andree Tracey, building and photographing extensive, theatrical "tableaux." In 1982, he began his series entitled "Tape-estries," a set of color print photographs of “paintings” made using only masking tape.

Nagatani moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1987, where his work took a distinctive focus on nuclear power and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Fascinated with the history of the nuclear industry in that region, Nagatani began researching the subject, photographing atomic testing sites and reading public information related to nuclear affairs, resulting in a photographic series entitled "Nuclear Enchantment," juxtaposing the nuclear landscape against New Mexico's moniker as the "Land of Enchantment." He also painted colored oils on these photographs, enhancing the work to suggest a luminosity that mimics radioactivity. In 1995, Nagatani completed a portfolio of photographs titled "Japanese American Concentration Camp," large format color images of the remains of the ten War Relocation Authority concentration camps. Although they are primarily landscape images, their subject matter ranges from sweeping views and archaeological remains such as water tanks and concrete building foundations to minute found objects such as shards of china and scattered nails left from the buildings that once stood at these sites. He began the project in 1993, photographing at Jerome , where his father had been incarcerated, documenting evidence of this father's past as well as his search for tangible links to his family's history. After Jerome, Nagatani traveled to Manzanar , where his mother had been incarcerated, making a similar photographic survey of its memorials, physical remnants of habitation, and the ground and landscape itself. [4] In an interview by historian Jasmine Alinder with the Nagatani family in 1998, Patrick's father John Nagatani revealed that his father's family had owned a farm in Hanford, California, before the war and in camp was given the first vacation of his life, but he died in camp. His mother, now a widow, returned to Hanford after the war alone, since her husband had died and her son had left camp for Chicago. Patrick's mother Diane was just out of high school when Executive Order 9066 was passed. Since her father (who was the family's only parent) had served in the Japanese army, the FBI came immediately after December 7, 1941, and sent him to a Justice Department camp in Santa Fe , New Mexico, about an hour from where Patrick now lives. Diane and her brother were sent to Manzanar. [5]

Nagatani's work has been exhibited in venues internationally, including the Art Institute of Boston; Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; and the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England. Numerous books have featured his work including Seizing the Light: A History of Photography by Robert Hirsch (2000), and Photography by Barbara London and John Upton (1998). His work is in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Denver Art Museum International Center for Photography, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He is the recipient of many awards including the Polaroid Fellowship and the NEA Visual Arts Fellowship, The Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer's Fellowship, The Kraszna-Krausz Award for his book Nuclear Enchantment, the Leopold Godowsky Jr. Color Photography Award, the Eliot Porter Fellowship in New Mexico, and the California Distinguished Artist Award from the National Art Education Association. He has served as a panelist for the Illinois Art Council, Southern Arts Federation, Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, California Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is also an honored recipient of the "Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts" from Governor Bill Richardson in New Mexico as well as the Honored Educator Award from the Society of Photographic Education in 2008. His survey show and book, "Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani 1978-2008," premiered at the University of New Mexico traveled to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and was exhibited at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia.

Nagatani was a professor emeritus in the Department of Art & Art History at the University of New Mexico (retiring in 2006 after teaching art/photography there for twenty years) and lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1991, he earned the Outstanding Faculty Award, from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, and from 1998 to 2000 he was honored with a Regent's Professorship. In 2004 he was recognized for his scholarly achievements and exemplary contributions to the College of Fine Arts by the University of New Mexico Libraries.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Alinder, Jasmine. Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Janis, Eugenia Parry. Nuclear Enchantment. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981.

Museum of New Mexico. "Patrick Nagatani." Idea Photographic (After Modernism). .

Nagatani, Patrick. Radioactive Inactives: A Photographic Collaboration Between Patrick Nagatani and Andree Tracy. Charlottesville: Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia, 1989.

Patrick Nagatani website. .

Penhall, Michele M., editor. Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani 1978-2008 . Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Art Museum, 2010.

Yates, Steve. 4 + 4: Late Modern: Photography Between the Mediums. Santa Fe: Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, 1994.


  1. Museum of New Mexico. "Patrick Nagatani." Idea Photographic (After Modernism).
  2. Sue from California, "My Hero Project," .
  3. Chris Komai. "'Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani Exhibition Reflects 30 Years of Work," Japanese American National Museum, " November 12, 2011.
  4. Jasmine Alinder. Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). 132-136.
  5. Alinder. Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration. 131.

Last updated Nov. 6, 2017, 5:12 p.m..