By Jim Lewis, originally published in ArtForum, January, 1997
Once every year or two – and lately less frequently than that – I receive a sort of visitation of art, a visual experience altogether unlike any other. It is, quite literally, what I live my critical life for: an object or an image never before seen, at once entirely strange and perfectly familiar and right. So it was that during a trip to Los Angeles a few months ago someone happened to show me some photographs by a man named Richard Billingham, and I felt the aesthetic equivalent of love at first sight.
The artist is twenty-five or so – just a kid with a camera, and that’s pretty much all I know about him. The few half-hearted attempts I made to find out more yielded very little, and while I don’t ordinarily count myself a member of the Know-Nothing school of formalist aesthetics, I have to admit that I didn’t try too hard, because it was clear that everything about the artist that could conceivably be relevant was in the pictures themselves, particularly as they appear in a volume he published last year called Ray’s a Laugh.
The book is a collection of photographs of the apartment in a lower-middle-class British housing project where his parents live. His primary subject is his father, Ray, an everyday alcoholic who rarely leaves the house; instead he stays in and drinks home brew, puttering around while wearing a series of drunkard’s expressions: delighted, dazed, about six inches short of dead. Aside from Ray there’s a behemoth mother, a brother who comes and goes peripherally, a dog, and a cat. Two or three main characters, then, along with a few extras, and four or five rooms: Ray’s a Laugh is a parlor drama of sorts, as tightly composed as a Pinter play, and considerably more grueling.
It’s Billingham’s artifice that’s interesting, but I mean more than just his technique: there’s a kind of moral artifice at work in these pictures, too, a frame set around his relationship to his parents. Because photography is almost automatically exploitive of its subjects: that famous and possibly mythic tribe of aboriginals, who believed that the first photographers they encountered were stealing their souls, were more right than wrong. One’s image is among one’s most valuable possessions, and the photographer’s job is to purloin it. I take that to be a fact about the medium, maybe its advantage and maybe its disgrace, more likely just a fact, one in which the viewer is entirely complicit.
So there’s a certain prurience that comes with the contemplation of photography, particularly this kind of verite photography: one inevitably wonders how the photographer got the shots. In Billingham’s case the question is particularly pointed: in only a few of them does anyone seem to be aware that he’s there, though the apartment is small and dark, and his flash is so merciless that one can’t imagine how he went unnoticed. Moreover, some of the pictures are pointedly spontaneous – there is Ray, apparently falling drunk out of a chair, and there is Ray again, in a fit of frustration and annoyance, throwing the family cat across the room, so that the image captures the creature in midair, and there is Billingham’s little brother throwing a tennis ball at Ray’s head. It seems Billingham simply sat in his living room and waited, camera in hand, for something to happen, and while it says something about his parents’ oblivion that they act like he’s not there, it says something even stronger about his own self-imposed emotional distance.
The measure of a photographer, then, is the quality of the attention he or she brings to bear on the subject before the lens, its depth and subtlety, its appetite and ardor. What, after all, would make a young man of considerable intelligence and ambition spend his days sitting around his parents’ bleak little apartment, taking endless pictures of them? What would justify his doing so? Only that he loves them and loves to look at them, whatever else he may think of them and however else he feels (and of course he may feel almost anything else, including anger, or contempt, or hatred). What would make the pictures worth the attention of the rest of us? Only that he makes that piety manifest, and that it’s convincing. Certainly Billingham has convinced me, which is why I find his photographs overwhelming.
So if the pictures were not of the photographer’s parents, they’d mean much less; they might not mean anything at all, and maybe it would be better to say they wouldn’t exist, since the particular temper of these particular photographs seems so bound up in Billingham’s closeness to his subject, and the distance from which he looks at it, the affection he must have felt to want to take pictures of his father, and the estrangement he manifested in taking the pictures he did. Of course, that’s a paradox: to me it’s the paradox of the Prodigal Son, who proves his filiation only by leaving and returning. Maybe it’s an accident, and maybe it isn’t, but the similarities between Billingham’s formal photographic technique and his moral relationship with his sitters is striking: he does well by doing badly.
I can’t imagine what the kid is going to do next; judging from the way he puts his pictures together, he’s no naif, but it remains to be seen whether he can find another subject as inspiring of his attention. It may be easy, and it may be impossible. But the pictures he’s taken so far are unlike anything I’ve ever seen: they’ve changed the way I looked at photographs, changed what I thought a photograph could do – at the risk of sounding maudlin or intemperate, I’d say they changed my ideas about what I could love, which is all I could ask of an artwork, and far more than I could ever expect to receive.
ASX CHANNEL: RICHARD BILLINGHAM
(Text © copyright Jim Lewis, all images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)