Keith Arnatt, Photographs 1974-2002
by David Hurn & Clare Grafik
I found the idea of this book appealing, despite not generally having much patience for discussions (arguments?) about is it art? Maybe it was the title; maybe it was the all-caps fierceness of the handwritten note on the cover (“YOU BASTARD! YOU ATE THE LAST OF MY CRACKERS”); maybe it was something else in the blog post that I now of course can’t find that originally sparked my interest; whatever it was, I’m glad I finally got around to spending time with this book.
If you don’t know (and I didn’t) Keith Arnatt was a Conceptual artist (yes, he was apparently important enough for that to be capitalized) who, in middle age, took up photography. Photos were at one point the only record of his work, and he became interested in them being the work, instead of just the record.
He did most of his shooting around his house. First he took black and white photographs of tourists; then he did a series on dog walkers that is unusual because both walker and dog are looking right at you; then he moved into color. The color photos are where it really started to get interesting — well, that and Arnatt’s seeming obsession with a garbage dump near his house.
Arnatt’s photos are of unexpected things. He shot the tourists, not the sites they came to see; literal garbage, but rendered with the texture and glow of paintings; the notes his wife wrote him, but we don’t see her. He was a guy with a camera, sticking close to home and indulging his obsessions. In his case, it paid off with fascinating and weird images. The close ups of industrial gloves and the canned sunset series were two of my favorites — strange and funny and beautiful even though they shouldn’t be. Arnatt’s work also suggest a sense of time without rush, a foreign concept.
Some of the work isn’t as as compelling to me. The random blurry snaps of his pets, or his fascination with the cows, or willingness to reach for a laugh or question by photographing dog turds just… well, none of those are really images I want to spend much time with. Not compared to the misshapen toys or dog toys or things retrieved from the trash and set on a homemade plinth, at any rate, though this may say as much about my obsessions and quirks as Arnatt’s.
Hurn’s essay (which I went back and read after going through the photographs) explains — but not too much — how these photographs came to be, in a fairly straightforward retelling of key points in Arnatt’s career from the point of view of a fellow professor and photographer. Grafik’s essay at the back of the book provides the art world context for Arnatt’s work, and is a fairly accessible accounting. The book spans nearly thirty years of Arnatt’s work, and at times he felt curiously absent from it, as there isn’t really anything here attributed to him that isn’t the work, no voice other than the visual. I suppose that is as it should be. Recommended.