Nagatani / Tracey Polaroid Collaborations (1983-89)

The 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 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. Using aspects of photography, painting, installation, and performance. Working in a theatrical way we expanded the boundaries of large format Polaroid 20X24 photography. The recurring theme through much of this work is the threat, the chaos, and the consequences surrounding a nuclear episode. Both artists appear as actors in elaborately constructed and intensely colored images which are peppered with irony and humor despite the darkness that the work forecasts.

About Collaboration: A Personal View by Andree Tracey
(How the collaboration began and the first three seminal shoots in San Diego and Boston)

In the summer of 1983, Patrick was invited by the Polaroid Corporation and the Museum of Photographic Arts to participate in a week-long photo session with five other photographers. Each participant would have two days at the museum in San Diego to use the camera with the help of John Reuter, long-time artist/operator of one of five Polaroid 20X24 cameras.

After examining what the capabilities of the technology were and researching what was done with the large format camera, Patrick asked me if I would execute a painting for a piece. The longer we talked about the idea, the more I offered my opinions, a host of new ideas sprang up. These were ideas for works that were hybrids of his thoughts and mine which was the beginning of our collaboration.

We decided to push the idea of a studio environment to the limits, combine our talents, and do the most outrageous arrangement for the camera we could imagine. The scope of our ideas was so elaborate that it was an impossibility for one person to complete them, another reinforcement for our collaboration. So while I worked on the two 12’ X 9’ canvas panels which were to be the backdrop for “Red Piece”, Patrick devised a scaffolding system and hunted for props. We worked on two sets for four months and drove all the packed material to the shoot location a day before we were scheduled to be “on camera”.

The first day of the shoot in San Diego, we assembled “Atomic Café”, an installation utilizing one of my pre-existing paintings. After two hours of painstakingly tying monofilament to the scaffolding and of having the props fall and need to be retied, I experienced an enormous letdown. I was overwhelmed with the thought that this experiment was doomed to fail, and what a place to fail, in the museum as people stood around in the public gallery and watched us! However, I said nothing to Patrick, who had also sunk into silence as he arranged and rearranged the dangling props. He told me later that he was experiencing the same thought as I at that moment.

Three hours later we were ready to shoot. I sprayed my hair red, applied red makeup to my face and arms, and took my position amongst the dangling props. We held our breath as the backing was peeling away from our first Polaroid 20X24 print. One glimpse of “Atomic Café” restored our enthusiasm. We saw our speculations become real, our visions became a tangible image. Our renewed adrenalin pushed us through the day.

The second day was more difficult. The “Red Piece” was a diptych and more complex to string, taking a total of eleven hours to prepare. We set up the first background painting, suspended the props, shot the fist set of photographs for the edition, then tore the set down so that we could repeat the process with the new set. As in “Atomic Café”, we had spray painted every object a fluorescent red, and anything that wasn’t painted read as its own hue in the print (part of the phenomena of the work and to offset the fact that we use a filter to achieve the amazing red hues from the Polaroid ER Land Film.). The photographs were joined together to form one image. A masonite palm tree was cut in half and used in both sets for compositional continuity. Both sets were assembled on their sides so that gravity would assist us in hanging the props, and the monofilament appeared to be streak lines behind the objects. To give the appearance of standing, Patrick had to lie on his back on a plank which was hidden under his shirt. The plank was anchored to a ladder, and several people held his feet to keep him from plunging headfirst into the set. Much like every shoot since that first shoot, we destroyed the sets as the photographs were the objects of visual magic and impact for us.

We returned from our photo session in San Diego in high spirits, discussing new ideas in hopes that we might be able to instigate them in another shoot with the Polaroid camera. We had decided to approach our work in terms of a business arrangement. We drew up a contract, a ten point “collaborative agreement” to define such issues as credits, percentages of sales, division of costs, exhibition procedures and the signing of prints.

Next Patrick called the Polaroid Corporation in hopes that we might with the camera again. By happy coincidence, Barbara Hitchcock (Polaroid Manager, Worldwide Creative Services), had been thinking the same thing. A date was set for the first part of May 1984 at the Polaroid Studio in the Museum School in Boston.

Our experience in Boston was easier in some respects because we were familiar with some of the problems we would have in regard to building more installations. However, we needed more organization due to the increased complexity of our location, shooting location and ambitions to try different contextual ideas. This time we visually storyboarded our ideas, built crates, consolidated props and redesigned the scaffolding for portability. Unfortunately, at the last minute, we realized that there was no room in our bulging crates for a crucial prop, the ironing board. We couldn’t take the chance of being in Boston and not having the time and means to locate one. What to do?

On May 1st we emerged from Boston’s Logan Airport staggering under baggage laden with props and video equipment. Strapped to Patrick’s back was the infamous ironing board. The hardest part was convincing a taxi to stop for us!

We began at 5pm that same afternoon to set up the first installation. We had a sketch and a general idea of what we wanted to see, but the hours ran by quickly as we methodically tied the monofilament to the scaffolding. For example, hanging the paper-mache pigs took half an hour alone.

Around 11pm, long after everyone had gone home, I began to wonder about dinner. My hunch proved correct, like every other art school, there was a vending machine in the basement complete with candy bars and industrial-strength coffee. Just like every other art school, it was broken. We finished the installation at 2am. We were tired and hungry, but satisfied with the setup for the morning session with John Reuter to make the first images.

The following morning, John Reuter donned the farmer’s overalls with good humor, Patrick and I stepped into the set, and Ian Churchill, John’s assistant, clicked the shutter. In the next ten minutes we did an edition of seven prints. How zen-like it seemed, we thought as we tore the set down in a matter of minutes, to have spent so much time, to have accumulated so many objects, all for this moment, and then all was discarded. What remained was only the paper image and memory of the process. Duchamp would have been proud of us!

In the afternoon we installed “Pork Belly Futures”. The life-sized people in this triptych were actually mural prints developed from photographs taken by Patrick several years earlier. After positioning these figures, we strung 250 one dollar bills and arranged them to fly into the air from fingers and pockets. The visual was completed after we added Woolworth jewelry to the figures, and I stepped into the composition as a French maid.

The last of the collaborative pieces was “Meet”. We utilized my painting of a well known restaurant/bar where people go to see and be seen in Los Angeles. After stringing three dozen pairs of sunglasses and squeezing Patrick into his mother-in-law’s dress (the most difficult task of the day), we concluded our visit with this installation. We were pleased with the results of the week, and especially pleased when we were invited to return again for another session in October. In addition, Polaroid announced they would exhibit the work at the Clarence Kennedy Gallery in November.

Boston was beautiful when we returned in the Fall. Our arrival was less cumbersome this time, since we decided to leave the video equipment at home. Our carry-on luggage consisted of handmade cardboard boxes to accommodate such fragile items as pasta glued together in clumps and model airplanes of assorted sizes. Our most interesting piece of luggage was the (real) stuffed cat that we had rented from a Hollywood prop shop. It was bundled in giftwrap to insure we could board the plane with no fuss (I think that the security guards at the X-ray machine thought it was a stuffed toy!)

As we entered the studio and met with John again, we felt as if very little time had passed since our last visit. It felt like home.

The installation for “Unlikely Earthquake” on our first day was far more difficult than any of the previous setups. The spice rack alone took as much time to install as the entire set of “Atomic Café”. A lot of preparation had been done in our studios in Los Angeles. Patrick had wallpapered panels of cardboard and made cardboard furniture with forced field perspective applications for depth of field illusion. We also did a mini-installation of a refrigerator, shot it in black and white and then enlarged it into a life-sized mural print. This saved us from having to find and set up a refrigerator in Boston. We also did the same process with a stove, thus using photographs within a photograph for the first time in our work. I mixed batches of resin to make plastic coffee and ice cubes, and we also bought plastic bacon, eggs and orange juice from a display store. The final installation was shot with the Polaroid black and white 20X24 film/paper and we felt that the documentary or journalistic aspect of the piece was interesting. Again, it was our decisive moment of another spectacle that was all within a directorial mode façade.

The following day we installed “Old Black Magic”. Patrick assembled the cardboard piano and the illuminated “Don’t Walk” sign, both of which he had made in L.A. I hung the painting and assembled props while John readied the camera and lights. More than any other piece, the success of “Old Black Magic” depended upon John’s expertise in lighting.

Patrick and I began to bicker as I put on layers of clothing for a bulky androgynous look. Being collaborators didn’t mean we always got along. I began to counter everything he said with an argument. He began to criticize my lack of modeling ability, saying I’d never make it in a Sandy Fellman shoot (I couldn’t argue this point, as I found it impossible to hold a pose, any pose, for more than 20 seconds). Almost every shot had to be re-posed, and our tempers ran shorter and shorter. Patrick had rigged up a pulley system to yank the piano up on command to achieve a blurred (or falling) effect. After completing the edition of “Old Black Magic”, we were delighted by the finished prints on the wall. Both of us felt that the hassles we had faced were worth it. We both knew we had some fences to mend though.

The gray pieces, “Beware Artist” and “Downtown L.A.”, went more smoothly. We actually began to enjoy working again as we sprayed everything a uniform gray, from rotting apple cores to cigarette butts. A moment of panic set in when we couldn’t locate the plastic ants so crucial for the setup. After looking through all the crates, we feared they had been tossed out in an oversight. Finally after resigning ourselves to a shot without the ants, we found them. Another hitch occurred when we realized we hadn’t found a colorful scene to use for the SX-70 Polaroid snapshots which were to be on the gray studio wall. At the last minute, we ran across the street to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and found postcards in the gift shop. By the last day, our energy which had been gradually eroding, returned with a rush. We completed “Snicker, Snicker”, a comparatively simple shot to install, “Anima”, and Patrick’s airplane series. At the end of the last day, we concluded that we had never worked harder in our lives, but we felt good about the outcome of our visit.

Over the next six years we collaborated solely as our work and made several trips to various sites to use Polaroid’s 20X24 cameras. In Offenbach, Germany and the Polaroid studio in New York City. I have always been amazed at the synchronistic moves and thinking that occurred in the heat of collaborative set ups with Patrick. It was truly an important and joyous art making time shared. On this art adventure in October in Boston, as our plane headed back to Los Angeles, we reminisced on our week, on the work, and we began to toss out new ideas. It was always like that.

About Collaboration - Patrick Nagatani

Obviously there must be some advantage in dual authorship of artwork, as we had been working together for six years, which is rather unique considering that visual art has always had the reputation of being a highly personal and individual endeavor.

We had experienced certain losses and gains during the democracy of our collaboration. Gone was the individual’s glorification of the expression of a personal psyche. Our egos had to take a backseat to the creation of work that is a product of two minds that in critical moments have been willing to concede to another’s ideas, sometimes in hesitation, but always with the belief that the work will be enhanced in general. So the work had become more important than our personal will, a humbling experience at times.

In addition to the release of individual authorship, the collaboration brought together not only two different personalities, but also two different cultures and two different genders (The phrase “Battle of the Sexes” has taken on new meaning.). Andree as a painter and me as a photographer added to the wonderful collaborative mix. All of these factors had proven to be catalysts for divergent thinking on the part of both of us.

The harmonious aspects of the collaboration were enhanced by an eleven year friendship, in which mutual respect and consideration carried us beyond any differences that may have come up. There were times when we worked in perfect sync. Never having to speak thoughts or direct each other’s actions because we were thinking and working as one. Then there were times when our moods and energy levels fluctuated wildly, but this was advantageous as we could uplift the other when the need arouse.

We found that working collaboratively enabled us to expend our artistic capabilities to conceptualize work that addresses issues of social concern. The most critical being the nuclear devastation of our planet. “Two heads are better than one,” seemed a good philosophy for the continuation of work that we hoped carry a message of social importance.

It was an artistic “marriage” and we had long decided that when our ideas and product got repetitive that it was time to end the collaboration. That essentially happened in 1989. We remained supportive friends then and today.

Barbara Hitchcock - Polaroid and the Nagatani/Tracey Collaboration

It’s an atomic explosion! Red-scorched palm trees, pizza, pills and milk cartons soar through the air with glass shards, shattered eggs, beer bottles and bags. An inspired, if somewhat foolish, photographer records the apocalyptic catastrophe, his SX-70 instant photographs sucked into the violent maelstrom cascade over his head as they spit out of the camera. One photo captures the ghastly mushroom cloud juxtaposed against a deserted, scarlet landscape. The other photographs reveal nothing but red—incinerated earth? ash-filled atmosphere? Perhaps these tiny prints foreshadow the beginning of a new world. Life as we know it can change in an instant.

Hung pinned to a wall, sheets of 20x24-inch Polaroid film―two dimensional versions of the adjacent three dimensional set―document the apparent destruction. A forest of objects dangle from lines of monofilament precisely located in front of a painted canvas backdrop that features office buildings and a modest skyscraper, tinged red by the blast. The crazed photographer’s jacket, tie and hair are wind whipped by the concussive force. Or so it seems. There is more artifice than meets the eye. The canvas cityscape rests on its side while Patrick Nagatani, portraying the unlucky shutterbug recording the moment, enters the photograph. Beyond the camera’s view, half of his body lies stretched on a table. His upper body thrusts unsupported into the picture frame. The illusion is complete. The shutter clicks. Red Piece is born on film. The story is told.

Impending nuclear calamity captures the imagination of artists Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey, the co-conspirators who spent six years creating dooms-day scenarios. Natural disasters, obesity, and similar themes are in their sights, but the primary target of their creative energy is the threat of nuclear annihilation. They began to collaborate in the ‘80s, taking a critical, yet fanciful look at society, politics and the environment. In their eyes, man’s situation in today’s world is notably precarious. Fabricating stage-like sets that they then photograph, the artists parlay fact against fiction, seeking to grab your attention, compelling you to stop, look and think about the messages communicated in their photographs. “We think of our work in terms of sociological or political comments,” Tracey says, “but with a sense of humor.”

The artists met when they both taught at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Their studios were in the same building. Patrick made photographs, used mixed media, always tried to stretch photographic conventions. “There’s a certain edge to photography that’s really restricting,” he says. “It’s a controlled medium, especially in the process. And I just want to throw that control out as much as possible.” Once a graduate student of Robert Heinecken’s at UCLA, Nagatani’s resistance to the constraints of traditional photographic practice is in keeping with his training. Time spent in Hollywood building models and sets for movies, among them Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, also influenced his desire to push boundaries. He envisioned a more expansive, plastic kind of photography.

A painter, Andrée invented bright, vibrant, humorous images, rendering them in paint, and sculpture―perfect compliments to Patrick’s photographs. Also a photographer and sculptor, she had made storyboards for television and films. Their experiences meshed perfectly, setting the stage for creative thinking and execution. Taking an idea, they’d flesh it out with detailed drawings, designing the look and feel, collecting props, painting backdrops, figures and objects. With all the components gathered, constructing a set began. From start to finish, they were the producers, the directors and the actors who frequently appeared in front of the camera. The entire process could take weeks, if not months. Then the camera records the installation in a moment.

Nagatani and Tracey first encountered the Polaroid camera when they were invited in 1983 to participate in a photographic project held at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Six prominent West Coast artists would photograph in a specially constructed studio adjacent to a gallery where The Big Picture, one of the first Polaroid exhibitions comprised exclusively of 20x24 photographs, was displayed. Museum goers could see the exhibition and simultaneously observe artists making more photographs to hang on the walls. It was photography, installation and performance art all rolled into one experience. With their limitless energy and shared black sense of humor, the duo was particularly entertaining.

Pulling large photographs from the base of the camera, they combine them end to end, making diptychs and triptychs... The color was dazzling; the detail, extraordinarily sharp. Painted brush strokes and suspended monofilament are easily detected in the chaos of objects and the occasional human that populates this world. “The 20x24 camera was the perfect vehicle for combining our talents,” said Tracey. “We worked in a complementary and elastic way with things never completely hammered down. Beyond the planning and constant interchange, our ideas took on a life of their own by the final shoot.” For any audience, it was quite a show.

Nagatani uses color purposefully as he believes its use can stimulate different psychological reactions in onlookers, from those that are quiet, calming and meditative to those that are emotionally charged. The brilliantly saturated or muted reds coating every object in Red Piece trigger visual dissonance and angst. In Atomic Café, Tracey painted two men sitting back to back in different booths inside a local L.A. eatery. The men, bathed in dark blue hues, ignore one another while behind them, framed in a red-curtained window, cars flash by disobeying speed limits. The hustle and bustle of city life is in full force as an ominous cloud of dust obscures the sky and treetops. Tracey herself steps into the scene completely dusted in vermilion, wearing a red dress and apron, just as her tray of wine glasses and a bottle of merlot begin to tumble. Sandwiches, fries, noodles, plates and cutlery lift off the tablecloth as some mysterious force pushes them airborne. In the midst of all this action, the blue men remain still and unperturbed. But we know danger looms.

“The black humor in their work,” writes photographer and critic Mark Johnstone, “has relations to various disparate sources, such as: large set advertising photography, “Pop” painting of the 1960s and the political sarcasm of editorial cartoons. Social disasters of various kinds—from the evolving complexities of urban life, to the raw and wonderful horror of nuclear bomb blasts—are magnified and emblazoned in stunning colors.”

Similar to their other atomic photographs, 34th and Chambers is a dazzling red creation, only slightly muted by the metallic blue-gray of a subway train that’s just stopped to pick up passengers. A crush of commuters struggle to get on or off the train, just as a shock wave tosses spray cans, calculators, candy bars and coffee cups toward the ceiling. Some passengers are pushed off balance by the wind. Others look quizzically over their shoulders. A sense of alarm, distress, uncertainly is palpable. Yet, a handful of commuters are lost in thought, blissfully unaware of their environment.

The subway station is inhabited by painted faces, life-sized photographic cutouts of family, friends, artists and their pets. Nagatani and Tracey, along with the flying detritus, are the only reality in this tableau vivant. Fact and fiction intertwine once more. What was another imaginative interpretation of nuclear holocaust when the photographs were made in a Manhattan studio in 1987 now seems prescient. Even the most unimaginable chaos can happen in a political landscape over which we have little, if any, control.

Nagatani and Tracey bend the truth with an ironic twist in their reconstruction of an atmospheric nuclear weapons test—Operation Greenhouse-- conducted in 1951 by a joint U.S. military-civilian organization. Observers of the test sit expectantly on rocks and lawn chairs awaiting the detonation over the Enewetok Atoll. Over-sized dark goggles obscure their eyes as the first searing wave of light hits them. Similarly, in Alamogordo Blues, stereotypically attired, blue-toned Japanese businessmen wearing protective goggles sit in Adirondack chairs shooting the nuclear inferno with their SX-70 cameras. Red prints sail over their heads as they develop, displaying a notorious mushroom cloud in a fire-red sky. The Alamogordo Bombing Range in the New Mexico desert hosts this extraordinary scene, its Saguaro-dotted sands stretching to a distant mountain range, tinted mauve by the blazing light. It is difficult to miss the irony in this multi-layered image. Disguised in dark humor, it is a lament and theater of the absurd played out in graphic detail. “The ability to dream and think of the issues [brought up by the work] is more important than truth,” Nagatani says.

The Nagatani-Tracey collaboration signified a short, but intense span of creative energy. Their photographic narratives present critical viewpoints with humor, biting wit, scintillating color, histrionics and a sense of fun that are highly seductive. We pay attention. We smile. We get it. Their message, with its serious undercurrent, surfaces.

Looking back on those magical years, Patrick Nagatani conjures up memories of exciting days when he and Andrée searched for props―haunting antique stores and thrift shops―spray painted collected objects, fabricated sets and labored to the point of exhaustion as they transformed an idea into a camera-ready, concrete visualization. “I get chills when I think of that time period,” Nagatani says. And, indeed, we do too.

Barbara Hitchcock
June 2007