Patrick Nagatani on Alamogordo Blues

In 1986, Andree Tracey and I were invited to use the Polaroid 20X24 camera and simultaneously have an exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany at the FotoForum Gallery. When the excitement of once again being "on camera" subsided and the practicality of moving our "setups" and props in crates to West Germany became a realistic logistic, we quickly directed our efforts to an "economy of means" while maintaining our creative style and concerns. A primary goal was to direct the new work from some of the humorous images that we had accomplished in the past towards images that had a more direct "black humor" ingested with irony. Throughout our collaboration we worked with and were informed by issues that Spencer R. Weart focused on in his book Nuclear Fear, A History of Images.

The December, 1985, issue of Art in America had a review by Max Kozloff about the exhibition, "The Indelible Image: Photographs of War-1846 to the Present." Kozloff states in the essay, "An exhibition of war photographs from 1846 to the present shows that, whether capturing the heat of action or contemplating its aftermath, the photographer cannot be a neutral witness. Intentionally or not, he or she acts as an accomplice." Kozloff goes on to describe the image that begins his review, "...another serene picture of looking- a shot of relaxed, goggled observers, seated in Adirondack chairs as they witness an atomic detonation of 1951." The picture was taken by an anonymous photographer (the accomplice) of high ranking military personnel illuminated by atomic detonation. The picture was from the files of the U.S. Department of Defense. Titled "Observers, Operation Greenhouse", this documentary photograph from the cold war nuclear age became the basis for our diptych Polaroid 20X24 image, "Alamogordo Blues."

I had read somewhere that most of the military personnel in the image had acquired cancer or some fatal disease as a result of the radiation exposure. It was during this time that military personnel were either intentionally or unwitingly exposed to large amounts of radiation as a result of government stupidity and/or experimentation. The image is full of irony as its implications are understood forty-four years later. Our intent with "Alamogordo Blues" was to layer an image with further information in an effort to direct further ironic juxtaposition.

Kozloff further says, "Even while the image is doing a routine bureaucratic job, the result can be politically expressive. When the rank and file military pose in front of the official camera, they plainly submit to an individual who acts as a representative of institutional constraints." Of interest to both Andree and myself was Kozloff's statement, "Far from being considered as individuals, these men a looked at merely as bodies to be processed. The photograph unreflectively denigrates them by the act of pictorial description, an act which by itself manifests authoritarian control."

As the new found "accomplices", Andree and I theorized that the addition of Japanese, Japanese tourists, in the adirondack chairs addressed issues of control. The idea of victims both wihin a historical and contemporary perspective of how Japanese have entered the American psyche in the last fifty years was at once ironic and also perplexing. Both guilt and a newly developed economic jealosy prevail. This coupled with the original image provided us with endless issues of interest.

We constructed an adirondack chair and we took large format pictures of Japanese-American friends (both my brothers are models) with ties strung up on monofiliment fishing lines and with hair greased back (to give the appearance of the nuclear wind blast). We printed the black and white negatives on large gelatin silver mural paper and mounted the resultant figures on foam core board. The figures were hand colored and accurately cut out. The Polaroid spewing out of the Polaroid SX-70 cameras were hand made in various sizes to perceptively force a greater illusion of distance. I posed in the image after Andree had applied blue theatrical make-up with white shirt, goggles, tie, and SX-70 camera. I am somewhere in the back of the group. Our desire to use a "real" figure in the representation installation was to heighten the sense of scale of the installation. The canvas background of an area in Alamogordo, New Mexico (the historical and contemporary nuclear landscape of American nuclear weapons development) was painted by Andree in oils. As in our previous collaborative work, the sense of illusion was the main reason to combine the painted "metaphorical mark" with the sharp, informationally loaded photographs. All of the props in the installation were hung with monofilament fishing line suspended from a scaffolding that the Nagatani/Tracey team designed and transported to Germany for the "shoot."

If we were writing about any one of many other Nagatani/Tracey images, there would certainly be a great deal more text on the constuction intricacies of the set and the work intensive set-up. "Alamogordo Blues" was a relatively "easy" installation to arrange for the camera. We think that its success rests with the seamless flow from concept to final photographic object. To this day, we feel that "Alamogordo Blues" is one of our strongest images from the collaboration.