Inspiration from the desert hits UMFA

By Steve Coons, Staff Writer

UMFA’s latest exhibit, Desert Secrets, is on display from the museum’s permanent collection. Primarily a photography exhibit, it is meant, according to Jill Dawsey, the museum’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to “focus in on the ways the desert has been used by the government or the ways in which humans and technology have made an impact on desert land.”

The exhibition features the work of seven photographers, but most of the photographs on display were taken by either Patrick Nagatani or Trevor Paglen. The two approach a similar theme8212;clandestine military operations in the American southwest8212;from opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum.

Nagatani, born in 1945 in Chicago to Japanese-American parents with roots in Hiroshima, literally crafts his history-infused photographs from the ground up. For a photograph depicting the accidental dropping of a 42,000 lb. hydrogen bomb outside of Albuquerque in 1957, Nagatani dug a crater in the New Mexico desert and re-created the scene. He painted the crater yellow and green, hired actors to pose as the reporters covering the scene, hung a model of a B-36 jet in the air above the crater and pasted cut-outs of a man photographing a nude Army official guarding the crater, and another man photographing a Pueblo family in the background. Afterward, he dressed up in Army gear and photographed himself in front of the makeshift crater while holding the photograph he had taken earlier.

Nagatani’s photographs are crafted so intricately that the techniques used to construct the photograph just described and three others have been explicated in videos posted alongside the virtual exhibition of his “Nuclear Enchantment” portfolio, which is being presented on the UMFA website in conjunction with Desert Secrets.

Referring to Nagatani’s tendency to sensationalize his photographs, Dawsey said that, to some degree, all photography is subjective or artificial.

“From the moment a photographer selects a single fragment of the world to frame, they are giving us only one point of view8212;and never the entirety of any given scene or subject,” she said.

Dawsey said Nagatani’s artifice doesn’t necessarily detract from the photographs’ ability to tell the truth.

“Perhaps by raising such questions and by exaggerating the artifice of his photographs8212;and thus calling attention to the artifice that pervades every image and historical account8212;Nagatani is actually being more straightforward, more truthful,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nagatani’s counterpart, Paglen, uses high-powered telescopes designed for astrophotography to photograph secret military bases, unmarked aircraft, and classified satellites orbiting the Earth. In effect, Paglen, the author of I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me, a book portraying and describing patches worn by the Pentagon’s Black Ops operations, approaches the limit of what can be seen, the same limit that Nagatani chooses to evade with artifice.

In describing Limit Telephotography on his website, Paglen notes that “between Earth and Jupiter (500 million miles away)…there are about five miles of thick, breathable atmosphere. In contrast, there are upwards of 40 miles of thick atmosphere between an observer and the sites depicted in this series.”

The difficulties of Limit Telephotography, then, is to ensure that the subjects of Paglen’s photographs won’t always be clear. In fact, sometimes they seem like nothing more than blurry snapshots of lights in the desert, in stark contrast to Nagatani’s stylized representations of the government’s secret undertakings. Dawsey, while noting that Paglen’s photographs are sometimes quite painterly, believes that he is a conceptual photographer in the vein of 1960s era photographers who “took intentionally deadpan and unskillful looking photos in order to criticize the slick, overly “artistic’ look of much art photography8212;and to prevent that look from interfering with the ideas they wished to communicate.”

Dawsey continued, “(For Paglen) to portray such a world with “clarity’8212;if he actually could, which he can’t8212;might defeat his attempts to emphasize the nature of secrecy. You might say that Paglen is interested in “the aesthetics of secrecy.’ There is a quote that I read by him in which he says something to the effect of, “I’m not so much trying to look behind the door, [as trying] to take a long, hard look at the door itself.’ “

Desert Secrets, on view in the UMFA’s LDS Galleria, runs through Jan. 31.

s.coons@chronicle.utah.edu