Pictures from a Rubbish Tip 1988–9 is a series of five large colour photographs by the British artist Keith Arnatt featuring close-up shots of rubbish that has been dumped at a local tip. In each photograph, the lens focuses upon select pieces of discarded food – such as bread, chicken bones and vegetables – that lie on clear and pale-coloured plastic bags. These bags both reflect and diffuse the surrounding daylight, highlighting the varying hues of the rubbish so that the scenes appear brightly coloured and partly abstract. Although the types of rubbish shown and their exact position within the compositions varies slightly, each is presented at an apparently fixed distance from the camera and this, as well as the similar lighting effects used across the five works, creates a sense of cohesion in the series.
Arnatt took the photographs in 1988–9 on multiple trips that he made to the Coleford Tip near his home in Tintern, Monmouthshire. He did not use any artificial light when shooting the frames, relying solely on daylight, and the artist employed an extremely shallow depth of field, sharply focusing the lens on the closest part of the featured object. According to the critic Mark Haworth-Booth, Arnatt ‘chose to place this very narrow plane of focus on each object’s nearest edge. This ... Arnatt believes, puts the viewer in the position in which he himself was when he first noticed and picked up these half-buried objects’ (Mark Haworth-Booth, Keith Arnatt: XXI Bienal de São Paulo, exhibition catalogue, Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo 1991, p.1).
According to the photographer David Hurn, Arnatt’s decision to present the rubbish close up and in bright but diffuse lighting is an attempt to conceal the image’s context so that its subject – a piece of rubbish – is initially unidentifiable as such. Hurn has stated that the series is
about looking – about the difference between knowing something and seeing something; the fact that we might know that this is a bit of orange or a cake, but when we see it taken out of context, photographed in a way we don’t normally see, it can look like a Turner.
(Grafik and Hurn 2009, p.10.)
In this way, the discarded, mouldy food items can be seen as objects of beauty when presented in a different setting, especially when using framing techniques, colour and lighting and that enhance the visual appeal of the images. Furthermore, curator Clare Grafik has contended that in their framing and composition, Pictures from a Rubbish Tip reflect ‘Arnatt’s interest in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, particularly the still life genre and the vanitas tradition’ (Grafik and Hurn 2009, p.137). Vanitas paintings depict objects thought to symbolise the transience of life and the futility of earthly goods and pursuits, including books, fine objects and foodstuffs. In a similar way, by focusing on food items that have been discarded en masse, Pictures from a Rubbish Tip presents the wastage and excess that characterise modern consumption, although Arnatt shows these objects in a manner that simultaneously emphasises both their beauty and their decay.
The photographs in Pictures from a Rubbish Tip were first exhibited in the 1989 show Through the Looking Glass: Photographic Art in Britain 1945–1989 at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, and were included in Keith Arnatt: Rubbish and Recollections that was held the same year at the Photographers’ Gallery, London.
Through the Looking Glass: Photographic Art in Britain 1945–1989, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1989, reproduced p.99.
Keith Arnatt: Rubbish and Recollections, exhibition catalogue, Photographers’ Gallery, London 1989, reproduced pp.40–2.
Clare Grafik and David Hurn, I’m a Real Photographer: Keith Arnatt: Photographs 1974–2002, London 2009, pp.10–11, reproduced pp.52–7.
Supported by Christie’s.