Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh” Series
By Outi Remes,Afterimage May-June, 2007
The British artist Richard Billingham photographed his family–his alcoholic father, large mother, and unruly brother–in their council flat in the West Midlands, England, between 1990 and 1996, producing the photo book Ray’s a Laugh (1996). It departs from the typical images of wedding/new baby/graduation/birthday family photographs, revealing the artist’s rough childhood surroundings and life in a council flat. The photo book was an immediate success.
Widely debated in the 1990s, it produced two types of interpretations. On one hand, it read as a political documentary targeted to the upper middle-class audience and addressed the working-class poverty of 1990s Britain following the years of conservative government. (1) On the other hand, with the 1990s witnessing a rapid expansion of reality-television culture, Billingham’s series was also interpreted as an entertaining reality drama, satisfying a never-ending appetite for confessional revelations. Although neither of these interpretations were intended (nor was political art or reality-drama entertainment of primary concern to the artist), this article, based on an interview with Billingham, revisits these earlier readings and examines how they might reflect the spectator’s interests and position within our culture.
THE BILLINGHAMS IN THE AGE OF THE NEW LABOUR’S PLAN TO END POVERTY
Billingham’s family series is often seen as a representation of poverty, even a “human catastrophe.” When the Labour Party won the 1997 election in the United Kingdom, one of its key goals was to end child poverty in a generation and to create a new welfare settlement that would meet the needs of twenty-first century Britain. The young artist’s photographs of his childhood surroundings, a council flat, seemed to encapsulate the need for the political change. Gilda Williams in Art Monthly suggests that Billingham’s interiors are a metaphor for the politics that aim to unmask the accident of poverty. For Mark Durden in Parachute: “Billingham’s representation of his working-class family’s poverty and violence … [stages] personal degradation and suffering.”
Some critics suggest that Billingham’s series follows the tradition of social and political photo documentary that often contributes to class debate. Billingham’s first group exhibition, “Who’s Looking at the Family,” held at the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 1994, included other photographers such as Martin Parr. In the Guardian, Gordon Burn sees Billingham at the end of the Diane Arbus tradition of “humanistic photojournalism,” together with Parr’s The Last Resort series (1983-85), representing the British working-class families in New Brighton, and Nick Waplington’s Living Room series (1986-91), which portrays working-class adults and teenagers in their Nottingham council flats. (7) Alice Dewey’s interpretation of Billingham’s work is similar to Burn’s: “[Billingham's] work contains an implicit social critique, part of a trend in recent British art [that explores] … otherwise unregarded proletarian subject matter.” (8)
Occasionally, Billingham’s poverty extends to surrealistic features. In Home Sweet Home, Gitte suggests that the family series is uncanny (“unheimlich”) because it belongs to a rhetorical and ritualized system of the family photograph while it simultaneously contradicts the system by its lack of poses. (9) When [empty set]rskou considers Billingham’s series as the uncanny, she also posits the Billingham family as the other, because it is different from her own family. Similarly, Mark Sladen writes in Frieze that Billingham’s work excites him because the artist’s experience of family life differs from his. (10) Without exception, art critics like to discuss “their” rather than “our” poverty. Billingham certainly does not represent an ordinary family album, but does this make his work uncanny?
Upon closer examination, the family becomes more ordinary. The spectator is given access to all occasions and moments in their life: their happiness, their sadness, and even their boredom is recorded on film for a period of six years. Thus, it becomes difficult to maintain a distance from the Billinghams. Like old acquaintances, they appear less strange and more ordinary.
Because Billingham is not an interloper but someone who grew up in working-class culture, he differs from the Arbus/Parr/Waplington tradition of photo documentary. However, this does not exclude the possibility that Billingham, from his “privileged” working-class perspective, wanted to draw attention to “the unregarded proletarian subject matter,” as his family pictures can easily be associated with the Labour politics of the 1990s. One wonders whether Billingham’s series is a critique of working-class poverty, the hierarchies of the capitalist society, or, more generally, if it reveals “the unbridgeable gaps in human relationships.”
Billingham does not think so. In fact, he opposes all political and social interpretations, insisting that his intention was to study the human figure in interior space; the photographs were merely his reference material for paintings.
After I did the family pictures, I soon realized that people liked
the family pictures for reasons that I never intended …. There are
very few people, I think, that get beyond the subject matter and can
identify the artist’s intention …. They just like to look at my
mum’s tattoos or the stains on the wallpaper or the dirty floor.
If Billingham’s work encourages the spectator to consider one’s relation to class and poverty, the spectator is giving the work deeper meaning than the artist originally intended. Billingham is more interested in themes of boredom and addiction, although he argues that he only realized this after finishing the series. (According to him, “While [he] was taking these photographs, [he] was only focusing on formal qualities.” The theme of addiction materializes in the men of the series. There are days when Ray cannot get out of bed after heavy drinking, and Jason misses his exams after taking drugs or having played video games too intensively.
The addictions explain the other theme: boredom. The addictions are both the result and the cause of boredom. On one hand, boredom encourages the addictions as a means of escaping boredom. On the other hand, the addictions are debilitating and cause boredom. Thus, the themes of addiction and boredom are social issues but are not necessarily class specific. The working-class surroundings of the Billingham family are only a framework. Nevertheless, some find it more comfortable to interpret the series as a representation of the problems particular to a class other than their own.
THE BILLINGHAMS IN THE AGE OF VOYEURISTIC REALITY-TELEVISION CULTURE
Another common reading of the family series is to look upon the photographs as an entertaining reality show for our voyeuristic reality-television culture. This reading assumes that Billingham is an opportunist who was aware that photographing his family home would interest the public. [empty set]rskou suggests that the home is “a place where we are happy to open our doors and invite the world inside once the worst dust has been removed from the corners, allowing us again to show an immaculate and shiny picture of our ideal reality.” Billingham breaks the taboo of home as a safe, private, and protected haven. Like voyeuristic reality television, the series is filmed in real-life situations, as opposed to artificial studio surroundings, although the spectator cannot know whether these situations are as authentic as they appear to be. Billingham’s snapshots of everyday life situations and voyeuristic reality-drama appear to be products of the same culture.
As with the political readings that address working-class poverty, the voyeuristic reality-drama readings discuss the Billingham family as symbols of social and class issues. However, as opposed to the political readings, the voyeuristic readings approach Billingham’s work in terms of entertainment requested by and provided for our culture. The spectator consumes the family scene and is seduced by their impoverishment. The Ray’s a Laugh series reveals our shameless curiosity in poverty. On one hand, our culture has little tolerance for emotional “imbalances.” On the other hand, the very same culture encourages “the identification and disclosure of illness in order to fight its debilitating effects and as entertainment.” As the title of the series suggests, Billingham’s father Ray exists to amuse the spectator.
Billingham’s group exhibitions in the late 1990s and the early twenty-first century have encouraged the reading of Billingham’s work in terms of the voyeuristic and the scandalous. It is easy to characterize Billingham’s Turner Prize nomination for his video Ray in Bed (1999) at the Tate in 2001 as similar to Tracey Emin’s nomination in 1999 for her video How It Feels (1996) or Gillian Wearing’s award in 1997 for Confess All on Video: Don’t Worry, You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (1994). Besides revealing details of his father’s alcoholic life in scenes that appear as confessional as the video works of Emin and Wearing, Billingham challenges the traditional language of portraiture by representing his family in an antiheroic manner.
It is also tempting to associate Billingham with photographers such as Nan Goldin who represented her friends, lovers, and herself, revealing real life in all its variety and feeding the spectator’s voyeuristic curiosity. In return, our reality-drama culture has increased Goldin’s recognition. As Sarah Kent, referring to Goldin’s photographs, remarks: “Viewing them is like being handed a passport to a subculture that guarantees privileged access to private acts.” (22) In Carey Lovelace’s opinion: “Goldin’s true genius lies … in her gift for imperceptibly injecting a sense of low-level, soap-opera drama.”
Goldin’s representation of the transgressions of urban dwellers pays little attention to “the sacrosanct quality of the print, nor the basic rules of composition and framing.” Goldin uses a snapshot technique. As she puts it: “It’s the form of photography that is most defined by love. People … take them to remember people.” The “Ray’s a Laugh” series is also made of snapshots, which has encouraged some critics to point to a similarity between the two artists. Nevertheless, the key difference between Billingham and Goldin’s work is their subject matter. According to Goldin: “My desire is to preserve the sense of people’s lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them.” Although Billingham’s spectator also likes to think about the story and the life of the Billingham family, Billingham is a less dedicated storyteller. He emphasizes that he wants to be judged for his artistic skills, not for his subject matter. As noted earlier, Billingham claims that his subjects were referential figures in interior studies, not portraits of his family. Thus, their lives are never the primary purpose of the picture, distinguishing the “Ray’s a Laugh” series from Goldin’s photography. However, the choice of representing the photographs as a series and the lively characters of the family emphasize narrative qualities.
Even if Billingham and Goldin assign a different level of importance to their subjects, both of their works exhibit an intimacy with their respective subjects. It has been suggested that Billingham and Goldin exploit their families and friends for the purposes of their careers. Jan Estep, in New Art Examiner, argues: “The exploitation of the trust becomes a concern when artists turn their gaze to their inner circle …. This stuff sells; looking at it makes people feel risky, sexy, sophisticated.” However, the relationship between the artist and the subject can be “exploitative, respectful, disempowering, empowering, cruel, loving, ethical [or] aesthetic,” and sometimes it consists of more than one of these aspects. Billingham’s work reflects the complexity of the relationship. For Billingham, seeing his family through a camera lens differs from seeing a family member face-to-face. Billingham is part of the family that he respects and cares for, but he is also aware of their limitations, and maintains a critical distance from his subjects, which allows him to also consider the formal elements within the frame. Therefore, as a member of the family, Billingham clearly benefits from his position, but it does not mean that he is necessarily misusing it. As Michael Tarantino argues, Billingham’s work is both intimate and distanced, but only a family member could get the privileged access that the artist has to his subjects.
Also, Billingham’s photographs reveal something that he is a part of rather than apart from, which distinguishes him from the tradition of documentary photography that is based on the difference between the observer and the subject. He shares a closeness to his subjects with Goldin, who refers to her subjects as “the family of Nan.” In Goldin’s words: “The photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party.”
The intimacy Billingham shares with his subjects is both psychological and literal. He often zooms in on his subjects. In the video Tony Smoking Backwards (1998), the literal closeness gives the film an abstract quality–the cigarette smoke and Tony’s mouth become so blurred that it is hard to distinguish between them. According to Billingham: “The closeness in the film is important …. The camcorder I’ve got has a 20x zoom in it.” He explains further: “I wanted to keep the intimacy but do away with the subject matter.” For Billingham, it is important that his subject is someone who is close enough to allow intimacy. However, the identity of the subject, whether he/she is his parent or another close person, is less important.
At a metaphorical level, Billingham’s extremely close-up images and the resulting blur effect suggest the impossibility of closeness. The mental or psychological closeness is unreachable no matter how close one is physically. For instance, in “Ray’s a Laugh” the spectator wonders whether this was the experience of the young Billingham whose father suffered from alcoholism and whose mother had temporarily left home. Closeness, or the lack of it, increases the personal quality of Billingham’s work. Furthermore, the series was photographed over a period of six years, during which time Billingham finished his fine art degree and went from being an amateur photographer to becoming a professional artist. During this period, Billingham reflected on his relationship to his family, explaining: “I could see how I felt towards them. I suppose I could see my social relationships with them in a photographic way as well as the usual way.” (38) Recently, he elaborated on this point: “If I was to look at a photograph that I took that isn’t very good … I would see it as a memory.”
According to Billingham, the “Ray’s a Laugh” series is a process of artistic development. Beyond political or voyeuristic aspirations, by photographing his family, Billingham discovers himself. His series introduces a young artist still insecure about his style as he begins to develop an interest in spatial representation that becomes a focus in his later work.
The dominant readings of Billingham’s series have ignored the artist’s claimed intention. These readings demonstrate that culture, politics, and the spectator’s individual interests affect the interpretations of artwork. But like Socrates (famous for his ugliness), who once asked his students to close their eyes in order to see their own internal beauty, Billingham–famous for his dysfunctional parents and the messy council flat–has asked his spectators to see the formal qualities and beauty of his interior pictures.