From the Vault: Patrick Nagatani, Andrée Tracey, and New Mexico’s Nuclear Enchantment

Jun 4, 2023

by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum

© Roswell Daily Record

“Trinitite Tempest,” 1988 by Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey, Polaroid Color Photographs on Paper (Diptych), Edition 4 of 10 – Gift of Ray Graham


I want to start by thanking my colleague Cloe Medrano, registrar at the Roswell Museum, for writing the last two editions of the museum’s monthly “From the Vault” column on Robert Mallary and Karen Aqua. This month I would like to focus on a 1988 collaborative photographic diptych, Trinitite Tempest, by Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey, currently on display in the Roswell Museum’s Russell Vernon Hunter Gallery for the exhibition Decades: The 1980s.

Patrick Nagatani, a Japanese American artist, was born in Chicago in 1945, only days after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on his family’s hometown of Hiroshima, Japan. Before meeting in an early release program in Chicago, Nagatani’s parents were separately imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during World War II. This origin and family and cultural history inspired a life-long exploration of the impacts of nuclear activity. Known through most of his professional life as a photographer, Nagatani never enrolled in technical photographic classes. Instead, his formal training was in the motion picture industry making special effects models for movies. The results of this training can be seen in the elaborate sets he constructed for his photographs and collages. He received an undergraduate degree from California State University, Los Angeles in 1968 and a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1980.

It was in Southern California where Nagatani met Andrée Tracey with whom he collaborated in the mid-1980s on compositions such as Trinitite Tempest. Tracey was born in La Jolla, California and moved back to Southern California after receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa. According to the Patrick Nagatani estate’s website, “Nagatani and Tracey’s collaboration began in 1983 when Nagatani was offered 2 days use of a 20” x 24” Polaroid camera. He was a photographer, Andrée Tracey was (a) painter and they occupied studios in the same Los Angeles building. Tracey’s sensibilities coalesced with Nagatani’s ideas and set design experience, and with this alliance, their collaboration was launched.” Nagatani left Los Angeles in 1987 and moved to Albuquerque, where he taught photography at the University of New Mexico 1987-2007. This marked the beginning of the end of Nagatani and Tracey’s brief collaboration.

In 1991, Nagatani produced the book Nuclear Enchantment, published by the University of New Mexico Press, that commemorated an exhibition of the same name at the Albuquerque Museum. In an extensive essay by Eugenia Parry Janis in the Nuclear Enchantment book, the writer remarks: “Nagatani’s most recent photographic confabulations are dedicated to America’s devotion to nuclear power, but more pointedly, the work honors New Mexico, for better or worse, as the mother goddess of the nuclear age.” As the Trinitite Tempest diptych references the Trinity site, Parry Janis explains its history: “The site for Trinity, chosen by (Robert) Oppenheimer, was intended to be as desolate as possible … Long before Spanish presence, a vast area around Trinity belonged to the Anasazi who engraved drawings of fish, birds, mountain lions, cougars, masks, and ripening corn on the stones along a chain of ridges at nearby Three Rivers. These enduring petroglyphs, the drawing of which demonstrates a tender humanism, continue to remind us that centuries before, a region determined as perfect to harbor ‘death, the shatterer of worlds’ had exploded with every evidence of life … The Los Alamos scientists in the middle 1940s saw only an abandoned stage waiting for a new drama.”

Parry Janis further describes the Trinitite Tempest composition: “Nagatani shows himself, armed with a black umbrella, exploring Ground Zero at the Trinity Site and trying to avoid being pulverized by a storm of green gaseous rock, a form of glass, called Trinitite, produced from the sand and great heat of the Trinity blast … Andrée Tracey painted dozens of styrofoam pieces different shades of green and suspended them from translucent monofilament so that a Trinitite storm appears to swirl across the desolate mountains, around the grim monument with its commemorative plaques, and to clobber the poor photographer.”

While some earlier works, such as Trinitite Tempest, are included in Nuclear Enchantment and marked the end of Nagatani’s collaboration with Tracey, most of the project’s works were created by Nagatani alone. In a 1991 Albuquerque Voice article by Kate Bennet, entitled Nagatani's Nuclear Vision: Death in Living Color, Nagatani is quoted as saying, “New nuclear weapons are new killing machines. They are systems for murder.” Nagatani died of colon cancer in 2017. Nagatani is quoted in a 2017 obituary in the New York Times as describing the intended impact of his Nuclear Enchantment project as “I want them to remind us of the spiritual poverty of the technical age.” Outliving Nagatani, Tracey moved to St. Petersburg, Florida in 2019, where she continues her solo artistic practice.

Nagatani and Tracey’s photographic diptych is currently on display in the exhibition Decades: The 1980s through July 16. This is a continuation of the Roswell Museum’s exhibition series exploring artistic expressions over 10-year spans of time throughout history. One of many historical events in the 1980s that provides a stark example of parallels between then and now is the nuclear spill at Chernobyl in present-day Ukraine. The accident itself killed fewer than 50 people. Over the next 10 years it is estimated that approximately 125,000 died from the effects of radiation. It is estimated that it will not be safe for humans to inhabit the contaminated area for at least 24,000 years. The present peril of repeating history is evident as Europe’s current largest nuclear power plant, also in Ukraine, is caught in the crossfire of an ever-intensifying armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In the 1991 Albuquerque Voice article mentioned above, Nagatani said, “We must use fantasy to portray horrific reality. There is not enough out there about death — at Chernobyl, for example.”

Stop by the Roswell Museum on Wednesday, June 7 at 6:30 p.m. for a unique program exploring the historical and current impacts of nuclear activity in New Mexico. This subject will be experienced and discussed using artistic expressions in the mediums of film and photography. The program will start in the museum’s auditorium with a screening of contemporary artist Pedro Reyes’ 2023 film UNDER THE CLOUD. This 25 minute digital film was commissioned by SITE Santa Fe as part of the 2023 exhibition DIRECT ACTION. The synopsis says that the film investigates "the ongoing history of nuclear tests, uranium mining, and nuclear waste disposal on Indigenous lands in North America. Expanding on existing dialogues around the harmful effects of this nuclear legacy, Reyes gives special attention to elevating the voices of those who have witnessed and experienced the consequences of nuclear colonialism and who continue to resist it.”

Special thanks is owed to the artist as well as to SITE Santa Fe for generously allowing the Roswell Museum to screen this work and for supporting an opportunity for dialogue with our local community about past and present impacts of nuclear activity. The film screening will be followed by a discussion and close looking exercise of Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey’s 1988 work Trinitite Tempest on view in the exhibition Decades: The 1980s. This program is free and open to the public.

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