A photographer captures eroticism and loses his ï¿½self.ï¿½
Patrick Nagatani is a photographer and professor emeritus at the University of ***image2***New Mexico. His latest work,
Confessions of a Tapist
(a series in which he uses large-scale photo prints as a base for a topographical painting with a variety of shades and shapes of masking tape), was shown last spring at Albuquerqueï¿½s 516 Arts, and his
series have been shown at the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe. Nagatani and his partner, photographer Leigh Anne Langwell, sat down with SFR to discuss how love, partnership and eroticism inform and affect the artistic process. While the conversation was focused on Nagataniï¿½s work, Langwellï¿½s experience as an artistic medical photographer added to the understanding of his work. That work, in turn, has certainly been affected by Langwellï¿½s imagery and knowledge.
SFR: Much of your work, especially the series Chromatherapy, is about the transformation of the body. How is healing tied into ideas of the erotic?
The context of that work is healing and growth with colored lights, which, in 1978, was a far-fetched idea. But more and more I see articles coming out about doctors using it as a therapeutic process. Within culture, the idea is not just of healing wounds, but growth. Everything from Viagra to meditation is used for enhancing sexual prowess and the images are made to show that same kind of home use, with partners practicing it on each other and the sexual implications behind that.
How do those sexual implications come out in the images? Arenï¿½t they really about a medical procedure?
Thereï¿½s a closed-off eroticism about the subjugation of the patient in Patrickï¿½s work. The act is performed on someone who is not active. Itï¿½s a weird thing about medicine, where itï¿½s cold and distant. Youï¿½ve got this powerful distant figure working on someone whoï¿½s been given these ideas about being a victim. So the eroticism is in that power and control. In chromatherapy work itï¿½s the opposite of that. Itï¿½s soothing, but thereï¿½s still a sense of victim, just not one of an all-powerful healer.
My self-portrait is about loving myself. Iï¿½m holding my hands in the shape of a heart and it looks like Iï¿½m eager for the procedure, despite all those angstful medical tools.
That picture talks a lot about ways to lose the self. Some people do that through sex. All eroticism is really just letting go of the self. The process is repetitive and oriented on a physical placement. Sex isnï¿½t really different from any of the rest of it.
Since you started this work in the ï¿½70s have you noticed any changes in the way itï¿½s accepted in the world?
How itï¿½s talked about has changed. The work has to be more censored today because people have a hard time looking past the sexuality at the whole of the work.
One of the things that really struck me about the power issue of the Chromatherapy work was the size of the prints. They gave me a sense of being a victim of them.
The basic size was 10 inches by 18 inches. The really large ones came about from curiosity about that power. If I ever had a show with an extravagant budget Iï¿½d make them all that big. Theyï¿½re meant to be an experiential thing, like what you just described.
What about your current projects? Are they focused on sexuality and the erotic?
Love is a more important concept in my ï¿½tapeï¿½ work. But not romantic love, more the Buddhist concept of compassion. Itï¿½s about a feeling for life, about loving oneï¿½s partner, dog, whomever. More of that kind of love is needed in the world right now.
What is the ï¿½tapeï¿½ work about, besides compassion?
Itï¿½s another way to lose myself. It takes concentration and doesnï¿½t allow me to consider timeï¿½very Zen. Iï¿½m working from the Nelson Atkins [Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.] collection, primarily doing Buddhist images [from photographs of the many scrolls, watercolors and statues that the museum has in its collection]. Especially Kuan Yin. Sheï¿½s a great figure, so loving and compassionate.
Because sheï¿½s been both male and female in different parts of the world at different times, does her gender influence you?
I love that sheï¿½s been both. Sheï¿½s whatever the viewer wants to see. In Japan sheï¿½s female, in Chinese both. But for me sheï¿½s the Goddess of Mercy. My attraction to her might be Freudian. Sheï¿½s a mother. I think men use their right brains more often than the left; she reminds me to use the other. Sheï¿½s also a bodhisattva [a Buddhist saintly figure that has put off his or her own enlightenment in order to work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings].
With Chromatherapy it seems like you were trying to tell a specific story, but with Confessions of a Tapist, the story is much more subtle. Do you mean for the images in a given series to tell a story?
That varies from project to project. For
[a work that stems from the collaboration with the fictional 1985 field notes of Japanese archeologist Ryoichi] it was very much like writing a novel. I wrote the premise, but I let the story evolve after making the initial images.
How did you make those pictures? Theyï¿½re so full of modern technology at very specific ancient sites.
I had to make big sets to bury cars in the sand. I never knew what theyï¿½d look like; I only theorized. For
it was very different. I had a sketchbook and I would draw out the picture. Then what Iï¿½d try to do was to duplicate what was in that image.
You only started taking pictures when you were in your 30s right? How did you get into it?
Iï¿½d always been doing art of some sort. First it was painting, teaching and graphic design. Then, in 1975, I made a commitment to search for what I really wanted to do. Iï¿½d just been dabbling in this and that.
Where did photography come in?
Iï¿½d been trained as a technical illustratorï¿½this was before computersï¿½ and it was very rigid. I wanted to learn to draw in less rigid ways, so I took a drawing class with [photographer] Jerry Burchard. In the drawing class I was a hit with the other students. I did perfect renderings and Jerry took me aside and showed me slides of paintings. He asked me, ï¿½What do you notice about these?ï¿½ He showed me a Cezanne that had this unusable ladder in it. He pointed out that what I was doing was making a duplicate of the world, without any subjective sense to the objects I was focusing on. So he told me, ï¿½I want you to use a camera.ï¿½
So you took photographs for a drawing class?
PN: Exactly. I had to take my assignments and take pictures, which meant ***image1***that I had to also learn how to make prints. After one assignment, I realized that you lose the skill, lose the perfection and have to relearn. I liked the quickness of it, though.
Did you start taking photography classes then?
I was teaching high school at the time, so I just started teaching a high school photography class. I had no historical background in it, so I spent the next 10 years sponging information. For three years I read nothing but books on photo history and technique. But I never took a class.
And then you started teaching photography to college students.
Grad students mostly. In higher education, graduate students teach the technical classes. So what Iï¿½ve done is talk to students about what their vision is. At that point they have to rethink years of education. Theyï¿½ve been problem solvers, but in grad school the point is to challenge yourself, to discover why youï¿½re using the medium. To look at what best facilitates ideas, like I had to when I switched to photography in the first place. But I always tell my students, ï¿½Donï¿½t talk to me about process. Talk to me about ideas.ï¿½ â?¤