Keith Arnatt, Untitled from the series Notes from Jo, 1990-94
Curiosity about others is probably something we all share in one way or another. Whether it’s people-watching at a cafe window or trying to work out what the connection is between those people sitting over there on the bus, it’s hard not to wonder about other people. And the thing we never really know is how other people are at home. Keith Arnatt’s series of photographs Notes from Jo offers a kind of portrait of a marriage. These are notes left by Arnatt’s wife during the early 1990s and documented by him to become a series of photographs. The notes are usually funny, often bossy, sometimes exasperated, occasionally angry; seen together they offer what seems like a hugely affectionate portrait of a marriage with a real sense of two people who care about each one another muddling along together from day to day.
I suppose for me there’s a central question here about the effect of photographing the notes rather than presenting them unmediated as artefacts. The prints are modest in scale so it’s about recording rather than monumentalising them but the act of recording, of making the photographs, is a careful one that turns random scraps of paper into something more uniform and in doing so it gives them a status they lack as objects. The simplicity of the photographs is an important factor here; the even lighting and a plain white background is a typological approach that gives the photographs a quiet authority. As a means of communication the notes had an immediacy that is contradicted by the permanence they are have as photographs; these are quick notes left to be read and discarded – part of the minutiae of daily life – but ultimately I think it’s in these small moments that much bigger truths can be found.
Another aspect of the photographs that intrigues me is that in some cases vague traces of writing on the other side of the paper can be seen. This is something that becomes tantalising when the notes are seen as photographs; we know there is another side to the story – or to the page, at any rate – but we’re denied access to it. While the series plays to my natural nosiness, hiding the bigger picture neatly frustrates it.
As a series, I think I find Notes from Jo intriguing, moving and entertaining in almost equal measure. It has an absolute simplicity and yet it is able to speak of the complexity of life, and relationships in particular, and effectively gives us permission to listen in on a private conversation – albeit a one-sided one – without feeling the need to pretend we’re looking the other way. And it shows very clearly that a portrait can be made in many ways. Above all what comes across in the work is a sense of Jo that it’s hard to imagine getting from a more conventional photographic portrait. As with any portrait, Notes from Jo is a representation, a re-presentation. It’s one version of Jo – and from a relatively short period of time – other modes of representation would reveal different versions. On the basis of this version, I really like Jo.