In the late 1970s, Keith Arnatt embarked on an unusual series of photographs collected under the title of Gardeners (1978-79). In the years before, he had produced a similar series of works looking at dog walkers, such was the draw of the ordinary for the artist. Essentially, however, it is what Arnatt found in this seemingly everyday scenario that tapped into his usual sense of the uncanny; that the recognisable, when stared at long enough, takes on a more unnerving form. These are not especially portraits in the traditional sense but a capture of a very particular aspect of individual personality. Portraiture captures the general, feigning the idiosyncratic. Arnatt’s work presents nothing but the idiosyncratic and beautifully so.
In line with Arnatt’s general practice, this sense of specific character is equally not considered so much in the physical body of the gardeners in question but in their work on their own surroundings. The figures are always placed in their space as almost a minor element or even part of the overall gardens around them. Every figure is seen in full body, there is no emphasis on their overall detail or zoomed in focus upon their faces or bodies. Their whole being sits within the frame with nothing to hide. In many ways their choice of surroundings suggests their overall character, or at least the relationship between how they appear and their decorative choices of plants and gardening paraphernalia does.
Sometimes the photographs showcase a tautology; of course that person has created that garden. In one photo an old, hunched-over man stands in a tall, messy garden, women’s underwear seeming to hang down unusually from the top of the frame. It suits him. Many of the figures are aged and, with their overly 70s clothing, the implication that the dead are staring at the viewer can’t help but be felt. The eerie and ominous elements are partly due to this and its colouring of seemingly normal things. A man holding a set of cutters is rendered unnerving, especially if in any way familiar with horror media dealing with 1970s suburban England. In another photo, an older man smoking a pipe is standing in front of what at first looks to be a child. On closer inspection it is a white statue of a cherub but one that is unusually crying into a pond.
All photos copyright of the Keith Arnatt Estate.
It’s surprising just how eerie the sight of people content within their own small world really is though the mise-en-scène of such a period has many outside factors playing into this. This is the same period as Day of the Triffids (1981) and the Doctor Who story, The Seeds of Doom (1976); plant life was already weird in this era. The sight of a man standing next to a strange looking bush requires little projection for it to seem unnerving or almost supernatural. The bush looks almost like it’s about to pounce down upon the gardener’s cat standing underneath, such is its angle and strange qualities; the man, a proud owner, is unaware.
The strongest photo in the series of images is also the most unnerving. A gardener is clearly burning some rubbish and branches, cleared away from the area in which he is now standing. He is leaning on a sharp rake and looks to be smiling though it is unclear. The smoke has risen through the photograph; obscuring the figure as such and making him seem ghostly, perhaps even threatening. The image recalls a short film by David Gladwell, simply called An Untitled Film (1963), which uses slow-motion photography to capture similar, dreamlike textures of smoke and branch. The dead man watches through the wisps.
Arnatt’s series is said to work as a whole rather than as individual photographs. The idea is that the eccentricity of the gardeners, perhaps even the act of gardening itself, is heightened by seeing it (and its accompanying pride) on mass. It was the same reasoning behind his dog walking series, capturing something that is undeniably eccentric in character though uncertain as to exactly why. But I think they work brilliantly on an individual level too, each photo possessing an array of information and character far beyond a simple portrait of the public and their gardens; when everyday people smiled on through dead teeth, looking towards the future which knows their death has since passed.
Mr Jones mows his lawn,
Cutting it to,
Let the green smell of,
Waft like plumes of smoke.
His ornamented statues weep,
Into the pond before he drowns himself,
In the long sorrow of,
A Saturday afternoon.
Mr Jones trains his hibiscus,
Torments his trellises,
Vine hanging as a welcome noose,
An escape from meandering days,
And painful conversations,
Sprouting from starved geraniums,
Growing from the skulls;
Moaning under the soil.
The dead will be our gardeners.