Patrick Nagatani in an undated photograph. Photo: Patrick Nagatani

Patrick Nagatani (1945–2017)

Patrick Nagatani, who contended with the nuclear legacy of the United States through his work as a photographer, died of colon cancer on October 27 at his home in New Mexico, Sam Roberts of the New York Times reports. He was born in Chicago on August 19, 1945, shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima. Nagatani’s family members were among the Japanese Americans who were interned by the United States during World War II.

Originally from Hiroshima, Nagatani’s parents were held in separate detention camps in California after the US declared war on Japan in 1941. They met in an early-release program in Chicago and eventually returned to California, where Nagatani’s paternal family had a farm. In a 2007 video interview for the University of New Mexico—where Nagatani worked as a photography professor—he spoke of the impact internment had on his grandfather: “It broke him, it just broke his physical psychological being. My grandfather left the country and went back to Japan and died a drunk.” Nagatani later described his usage of explosions and pollution in his “Nuclear Enchantment” series as a reminder of the “spiritual poverty of the technical age.”

While Nagatani was never technically trained in photography, he was first encouraged to pick up a camera by a Santa Monica Community College instructor when he was thirty-one years old, and he worked in the medium the rest of his life. He earned his MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he fleshed out the ominous themes, including the history of atomic weapons and their capacity for destruction, that would thread his life’s work. After graduating, he worked in Hollywood, where he made special-effects models for films such as Blade Runner, 1982, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. A documentary about his life and legacy, titled Patrick Nagatani: Living in the Story, will be released next year.