Keith Arnatt’s practice was recommended to me by my supervisor and by John Duncan, one of my portfolio reviewers.
Arnatt began as a conceptual artist. Usually, conceptual art is of little appeal to me because often it seems too contrived and emotionally dead. This is not the case with Arnatt, however. In the best of his work he was too playful, too creative and too challenging for that. Besides, it is hard not to warm to someone who compared a discussion of photography versus art to discussing sausages versus food and who wrote what he called a ‘Trouser-Word Piece’ with some highly pertinent questions originally asked by the philosopher John Austin:
‘a definite sense attaches to the assertion that something is real, a real such-and-such, only in the light of a specific way in which it might be, or might have been, not real. ‘A real duck’ differs from the simple ‘a duck’ only in that it is used to exclude various ways of not being a real duck. … It is this identity of general function combined with immense diversity in specific applications which gives to the word ‘real’ the, at first sight, baffling feature of having neither one single ‘meaning’, nor yet ambiguity, a number of different meanings’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 148)
These are questions that lie at the heart of all photography: it is indexical but at the same time it is only a representation, it appears ‘real’ but it is in fact an illusion on a sheet of paper, it suggests that something happened but offers no evidence, outside the photograph, that anything happened at all. Something in us wants photographs to be real, but they never are.
Arnatt brought to his practice not only a keen intelligence but a deep knowledge of art and painting and a love of philosophy. The first lesson here is that the more one can bring to an image, of knowledge and life, the richer it is likely to be. Simply clicking a shutter is not really enough. As David Hurn writes: ‘He drew on his art background all the time, clearly referencing the work of Samuel Palmer for Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) … all his ideas about art and photography come together in these pictures, which are to me about looking – about the difference between knowing something and seeing something’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 10).
The second lesson here is easily forgotten but always present. In Arnatt’s own words: ‘the ability of the camera to transform that which is photographed seems to me to be an eternal source of fascination. The fact that it does this just this. Going back to Miss Grace’s Lane again … the way that these materials become transformed, both by the light by which they are photographed and by the photographic process itself, just fascinated me’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 136).
Three or four of Arnatt’s various bodies of work overlap with my own project.
The first is A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) of 1982-84. This raises the questions, just as important today, of what we really mean by concepts such as beauty, landscape, countryside. The landscapes Arnatt found in alleged beauty spots are far from the countryside of our fond imaginings. Often they are scrappy and unkempt, litter-haunted, and already showing signs of urban encroachment and metropolitan alienation. In the same era, the New Topographics movement and Arnatt’s contemporary Fay Godwin were questioning our ideas about landscape and beauty in similar ways. What we mean by ‘landscape’ and ‘landscape photography’ are questions core to my own project.
In The Forest of Dean (1986) Arnatt took this further by showing ‘landscape’ as a working environment, although in rather soft, wash tones: our habitual tendency to see ’landscape’ as a pleasant vista blinds us to the reality of what actually happens there. Robert Adams has asked similar questions in much of his work albeit in a more pointed and even brutal way, as in his images of unsustainable clear-cut logging in the Pacific North West. This too overlaps with my project because any view of the landscape here involves showing unsustainable farming – agribusiness – and its consequences.
Arnatt’s interest in the camera’s ability to transform that which is photographed is best seen in two other bodies of work, Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) and Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988-89). These are lushly colourful works, and democratic in the vein of Eggleston or Shore: everything is available to our lens; it is our preconceptions about what ‘should’ make a photograph that get in the way. However, the colour in these works is there for a reason. Arnatt brought his knowledge of painting to every image, in composition, in the sometimes golden light of English Romanticism and in painterly textures and arrangements that recall, quite deliberately, classic still life paintings by Old Masters.
This is the third lesson: that good photographs have layers of meaning and derive their energy from the interplay of depiction and connotation. What may be shown is often only a starting point, even a metaphor. The photograph references a much wider, richer world across time that both changes the meaning of the image and expands our understanding and appreciation of it. We are not just looking at a mouldy loaf of bread (see Fig. 3) but at the whole history of how these objects have been approached in Western art. This is something I have barely tried in my photography but I am now sure it would be richer if I did. The subject was well summed up by David Bate:
‘The old famous complaint by Walter Benjamin, that photographers were “incapable of photographing a tenement rubbish heap without making it look beautiful” is precisely what Keith takes up, not to reject Benjamin’s remarks, but to show – to show the viewer – that what you see depends on how it is photographed, that photography organises what it sees. As Martin Parr notes in a piece on Keith Arnatt, those pictures are simultaneously appealing and disgusting. A piece of mouldy bread looks exquisite, like a Turner landscape. This is a perfect paradox’ (Bate 2009).
This returns me to Hurn’s point above about ‘the difference between knowing something and seeing something’. It is the difference between pointing the camera at something half-thinking ‘well, that looks quite interesting’ and immersing oneself in a frame, becoming aware of its possibilities, giving it one’s full attention, before pressing the shutter. Perhaps this is the really important quality to take from Arnatt’s practice as a photographer.
ARNATT, Keith., David HURN and Clare GRAFIK. 2007. I’m a Real Photographer. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.
BATE, David. 2009. ‘Keith Arnatt, 1930–2008’. Photoworks [online]. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/keith-arnatt-1930-2008/ [accessed 11 Mar 2021].
Figure 1. Keith ARNATT. 1982–84. Untitled. From: Keith Arnatt. 1982–84. A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Available at: http://www.keitharnattestate.com/works/w51.html [accessed 12 March 2021].
Figure 2. Keith ARNATT. 1986–87. Untitled. From: Keith Arnatt. 1986–87. Miss Grace’s Lane. Available at: http://www.keitharnattestate.com/works/w53.html [accessed 12 March 2021].
Figure 3. Keith ARNATT. 1988–89. Untitled. From: Keith Arnatt. 1988–89. Pictures from a Rubbish Tip. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/arnatt-pictures-from-a-rubbish-tip-t13171 [accessed 9 March 2021].