My introduction to the work of Keith Arnatt roughly coincided with his 2007 retrospective show at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. Beginning his artistic career as a conceptual artist, from 1973 onwards Arnatt decided to become a photographer. It was a decision that would see him rejected by the art world.
The concern at this time was that photography wasn’t real art. Ergo, Arnatt was no longer a real artist. What counts as real and who gets to decide what’s real was something that Arnatt had already publicly explored in ‘Trouser – Word Piece’, which saw him wearing a placard outside numerous locations literally spelling out ‘I’m a Real Artist’.
The concern about whether photography can be considered art has long since subsided. In 1977, Susan Sontag even proclaimed its inevitability, “time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”
My interest in (and fondness of) Arnatt stems from a second rejection, his rejection of typical photographic subject matter. In Arnatt’s own words, “I like to photograph the things that everyone else thinks are not worth photographing.”
Arnatt’s originality of vision can be seen in such series as A.O.N.B (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), Miss Grace’s Lane, and Pictures from a Rubbish Tip. These images take seriously such things as nondescript bends in roads, human refuse left in public places, and rotting food.
A.O.N.B (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-1984 © Keith Arnatt
Miss Grace’s Lane, 1986-1987 © Keith Arnatt
Pictures from a Rubbish Tip, 1988-1989 © Keith Arnatt
Arnatt then uses the tools of photography: colour, lighting, and framing to convince us too that these things are worth looking at. The ugly and forgotten become magical and mysterious.
Arnatt’s rejection of conventional photographic subject matter is a rejection of allowing yourself to be told what is beautiful and/or worth your time. His rejection of the discipline’s gaze makes possible the seeing of things not yet seen. Which serves an important function both in pushing the boundaries of conventional photographic practice and also in expanding the boundaries and worlds of those who look. And if Sontag is correct, it will all be art in the end.
Dunghills and cesspools are great themes in a realistic environmental history, for they were crucial to preserving the fertility of the fields – Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power (2008:6)