Gardeners 1978–9 is a series of forty black and white photographs by the British artist Keith Arnatt. The series depicts individuals standing outdoors in the gardens they tend, which vary in character from sprawling fields in the countryside to small urban front gardens. Although the gardeners’ poses, expressions and clothing differ, they are all shown full-length standing in the mid-ground of the scene and looking towards the camera.
Arnatt took the photographs that make up this series during 1978 and 1979. To do so, he visited the sitters at their homes, photographing them in their own gardens. The series title, Gardeners, focuses the viewer’s attention on the gardeners rather than the gardens themselves, although the way in which Arnatt presents the individuals surrounded by the grass, foliage and sometimes concrete of their settings, with little else in view, suggests the intimate connection between the gardeners and their land. The repetitive nature of the composition and poses across each of the forty photographs also has the effect of drawing together a diverse group of people who have been photographed as a result of a shared hobby.
The curator and historian of photography Ian Walker has interpreted Gardeners as a combination of sociological documentation and ‘studies in human eccentricity, revealing oddities of taste that come out in choice of environment’ (Walker in Keith Arnatt: Rubbish and Recollections, exhibition catalogue, Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno, and Photographers’ Gallery, London 1989, p.17). When the images are placed alongside one another, the peculiarities of each garden are highlighted, offering a view on the sitters’ personalities and aesthetic choices that may not be evident in a conventional portrait photograph. Furthermore, Walker has observed that
these pictures must really be termed portraits in landscape. Are these gardeners in harmony or at war with their patches of landscape? Often it seems as if Nature is taking the very opportunity of the photo-session to creep up from behind and reclaim the garden.
(Walker in Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno, and Photographers’ Gallery, London 1989, p.18.)
The images may therefore be considered a challenge to conventional portraiture, as here the settings seem to dominate the scenes, presenting greater variation from photograph to photograph than is seen among the humans who tend them.
Gardeners is one of three series of photographs of the public that Arnatt took during the 1970s (see also The Visitors 1974–6, British Council Collection, London, and Walking the Dog 1976–9, Tate T13047–T13086) and was first exhibited in 1979 in a solo exhibition of Arnatt’s work at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London. It bears distinct similarities to Walking the Dog which, like Gardeners, consists of forty images that feature people in very similar poses engaging in the same activity, differentiated by their surroundings and, in the case of Walking the Dog, by the dogs at their feet.
During the 1960s and early 1970s Arnatt had established his reputation as a conceptual artist, producing works such as Trouser – Word Piece 1972–89 (Tate T07649), which used the philosophy of language and semantics to mount a critique of art institutions and the definition of the term ‘artist’. However, following his introduction to the photographic work of Edward Weston (1886–1958), Walker Evans (1903–1975) and Diane Arbus (1923–1971) in 1973 when teaching at Newport College of Art, Arnatt began to focus his creative practice on photography. Although his photographic series appear to differ formally from his earlier work, art historian Hilary Gresty has argued that in much of his later practice Arnatt continued to explore the themes of language and definition:
In the series The Visitors, 1974–6, Gardeners, 1978¿–9 or Walking the Dog, 1976–9, the works go beyond being a descriptive or mimetic record to create their subjects through the act of taking a photograph … the gardeners become a feature of their own gardens … [the photographs] anticipate contemporary art’s engagement over the past three decades of the construction of reality through the image.
(Gresty in Maureen Paley 2012, p.8.)
Arnatt was interested at this time in the way in which language can express identity, specifically whether being labelled a ‘gardener’, for instance, forms an element of an individual’s identity that is ontological – one that is part of their being – or performative – one that emerges only when the sitter engages in the act of tending the garden. In presenting his subjects posing in gardens but not carrying out their gardening, Arnatt could be seen to be suspending the sitters between these two linguistic forms, suggesting that, as Gresty claims, the photographic act has a role in either exposing or constructing the identities of the sitters.
Clare Grafik and David Hurn, I’m a Real Photographer: Keith Arnatt: Photographs 1974–2002, London 2009, pp.10–11, reproduced pp.26–7.
Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert (eds.), Keith Arnatt: Works 1968–1990, exhibition catalogue, Richard Saltoun Gallery, London 2009.
Keith Arnatt: Works 1967–1996, exhibition catalogue, Maureen Paley, London 2012, reproduced pp.36–41.
Supported by Christie’s.