If you are a photographer in New Mexico, chances are you are familiar with the work of Patrick Nagatani. When I first moved to Albuquerque back in 1993, he was among the first local photographers that I had heard about. His book "Nuclear Enchantment" was a confounding, enigmatic, yet spot on introduction to my new home. I can think of few other bodies of work that better exemplify the contradictory forces that shape life here in the New Mexico. A confluence of cultures, a place where the future is constantly at odds with its past, a place of incredible beauty, of devastating poverty, all sitting upon land that is at once sacred and forever atomically tainted.
Nagatani passed away last year, dying of cancer, a common malady of course, but even more so in this state where the first atomic bomb was tested. Coincidence? Who's to say. In the months that have followed his death, there has been a thorough reassessment of Nagatani's career, and currently there are no less than three different exhibits of his work, two in Albuquerque, and one up in Santa Fe. I recently visited the Albuquerque Museum to view an exhibit of the series "Excavations" and I must say, I was so impressed that it has made me re-think my own previous ideas about his work. This exhibit transcends strict parameters of a "photo" exhibit. If anything, it is a finely executed piece of conceptual art.
The body of work revolves around a purported discovery of buried cars at sites "in areas with significant archaeological or historical remains - Chaco Canyon, Herculaneum, Stonehenge - or with monuments to our own technological age - The Very Large Array, Kitt Peak National Observatory." Nagatani and his alter ego, an enigmatic Japanese archaeologist named "Ryoichi" teamed up to undertake the excavations, and to document it in full. Nagatani's photographs are paired with an array of diary entries, images of found objects from the sites, and cartographic documents that cover each location. A suspicious (or astute) viewer might very well deduce that the entire project is a well executed hoax (** spoiler ** it is.) That is beside the point, however. The breadth of the work is impressive, the attention to even the minutest of details is staggering. Upon reading that Nagatani began his career as a model builder in Hollywood, the exhibit takes on an even more impressive dimension. Realizing that he created the model tableaus in the photographs made me appreciate the craft even more.