A project that I have been involved with for the past four-and-half years, a "photo novel" by artist and University of New Mexico emeritus professor Patrick Nagatani, has finally been published. Titled The Race, the novel represents a triumph of art over life, or maybe more accurately, art sustaining life; for nearly the entire length of the project, Patrick waged a painful and hard-fought battle for his life against Stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer. A week after launching the book at an Albuquerque Museum book signing, he passed away on October 27.
That Patrick's ferocious drive to create did not flag under incredible physical duress did not come as a surprise to those who knew him. “We kept joking that Patrick was living for the next event,” curator of art Andrew Connors was quoted as saying in an Albuquerque Journal obituary. “He was about work. He was this incredible creator who makes photographs unlike anybody else’s.” A reductive The New York Times summary of his career noted he "devoted his photographic career to evoking the nuclear legacy of the adopted nation that interned his parents during World War II."
The Race marked Patrick's evolution from visual to prose storyteller, and a continuation of his interest in environmental, spiritual, feminist, and pacifist issues. The book tells the story of 15 women pilots engaged in a trans-Pacific race from Tokyo to San Francisco. They pilot retrofitted British World War II Spitfire floatplanes that had been buried in Burma and later recovered. Patrick's alter-ego, the anthropologist Ryoichi, appears in the book, along with an international cast of women pilots, each with her own history and challenges. For the book, Patrick created stunning photographs combining plane models he constructed and photographs of clouds taken by his close friend, pilot, and photographer Scott Rankin, each depicting one of the novel's fifteen floatplanes. I was one of nine writers who contributed chapters to the novel, and also served as one of the book's editors.
I first encountered Patrick in about 2009 or 2010 when I interviewed him for an essay I was writing on three photographers who had documented the World War II prison camp Manzanar. We found that we were both Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans) raised in Los Angeles, and that my mother had taken a photography class with Patrick. After the 2011 publication of a book covering thirty years' worth of Patrick's work, Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani 1978-2008. I wrote about two gallery exhibits of his work in Los Angeles.
Patrick's signature style contains echoes of his early experience as a Hollywood special effects model builder for movies including "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Blade Runner." (His 1980s Polaroid collaboration with painter Andrée Tracey best displays those influences.) Yet the elaborately constructed sets formed just one aspect of his photo dramas, which are a powerful blend of form (photography, sculpture, painting) and content (myth, magic, history and fantasy). He told one interviewer he loved it when people viewed works--such as his "Nagatani-Ryoichi Excavations" series, which includes the fictional diaries and anachronistic discoveries of his alter-ego Ryoichi--and asked him, "Was that true?" For him, he explained, his creative work and "reality" were all of a piece: "everything is true."
During the course of our long and long-distance collaboration, I learned about Patrick's love for his wife Leigh Anne and his beloved dog Annie (who died in February 2016), and some of his favorite pursuits: counting cards at Las Vegas blackjack tables (an ability he claimed was enhanced by his "chemo brain") and fantasy sports. A happy weekend for him was "meeting up with my brothers in Las Vegas and doing March Madness." In a September 2016 email to me, he wrote, "I kicked ass in Fantasy. My chemo and side effects are kicking my ass. Hah. Getting a bit desperate with this novel…so much to still do and time might be running out for me…whew."
Then there was the much more sobering medical blog that he kept to keep us all up to date, detailing an ever more debilitating schedule of chemotherapy, side effects, and drugs administered for the side effects.
Nothing, though, could keep Patrick from creating, and making photographs. On New Year's Eve, December 31, 2014, he sent me a photograph that encapsulated his love for his medium, his medical predicament, and his humor in the face of pain and adversity.
He wrote, "Made a crazy Chromatherapy pic of me getting chemo on Monday surrounded by lovely oncology nurses...hah...if only..." and signed off as he often did, "Namaste and love, Patrick." ("Chromatherapy" refers to both a healing method using light, and the subject of one of his photograph series.)
We exchanged countless rounds of emails about edits on the book and we shared a few heartfelt telephone conversations, yet I deeply regret that I never met Patrick in person. We were set to meet on one occasion in Manhattan, when he planned to attend the MOMA opening of a retrospective show of photographer Robert Heinecken, his UCLA mentor. But at the last minute his health prevented him from attending.
Still, he was always so engaged. When I visited and wrote about an organic farming community in Japan, he seized on the utopian ideals of the place and made it into a sub-plot of The Race, he said, "to show the way the women bond and contribute...feeding the world healthy food!"
On June 11, he sent me an email with the subject line "End Game," in which he enumerated the ways he was getting ready for the end. "I will die with one dollar in my pocket and with a smile," he wrote, "My book, which I will be getting [out] at end of September will be my farewell to all. "
It comforts those who remain to think that leaving us behind was like that for Patrick, filled with love for us, and peace and satisfaction over a last project beautifully completed. Maybe the notion is not so far fetched. When asked in an interview, “What keeps you creating?” Patrick's responded by recounting what he used to tell his students: many would go on to do something important, whether making art or becoming a doctor. To those destined to become artists, he said, “you will understand—it’s in your heart.”
Then referring to his own “need to make some pictures,” he added, “That never leaves the soul, the heart of me. You’re thinking about it constantly…and it makes you happy.”