Billingham is known for a series of photographs he took of his family in their cramped Stourbridge council flat in the British Midlands between 1990 and 1996. Originally intended to be used as the basis for paintings, the pictures were shot on out-of-date 35mm film using a cheap instamatic camera in the spontaneous style of snapshots. Many of the images were published by Anthony Reynolds Gallery in the book Ray’s a Laugh in 1996. All the photographs in the series are untitled; many of them, like this one, have been released as large-scale prints, unframed and dry-mounted on aluminium. Introducing Ray’s a Laugh, Billingham wrote:
This book is about my close family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew. My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.
(Quoted in Ray’s a Laugh, back cover.)
This picture shows Ray, his nose bloodied either from a recent fight with Liz or a drunken collision with some piece of furniture, reaching up to pull the light cord in the toilet. The photograph looks into the toilet from outside; set in a large expanse of white wall, the red and yellow-painted doorframe encloses an area of brilliant colour provided by the toilet’s red and yellow patterned wallpaper, part of the brown door and Ray. The upper half of his body, clad in a navy sweater and grey tweed jacket, is cropped inside the door frame; his face tilts upwards, showing a large spot of blood between his nose and mouth and anxious eyes turned towards the cord. The busy wallpaper and naked light bulb just showing in the top of the frame are signature marks of the series. Brightly coloured walls hung with ornaments and pictures, surfaces cluttered with knick-knacks and the detritus of everyday life, piles of clothing and bedding, dogs, cats, real and fake flowers, cardboard boxes, stacks of paper and general decay fill the images with colour. Human and animal family members are shown interacting or caught in solitary moments of contemplation. Taken in the most intimate spaces of the home, the pictures document scenes of violence and tenderness, aspects of daily life only a family member is normally privy to. Ray’s drunken behaviour features prominently, contrasting with images of nurturing, predominantly by overweight Liz.
Billingham’s project recalls the work of American photographer Nan Goldin (born 1953) whose gritty photographs of herself, her lovers and her friends, taken in the 1970s and 80s, inspired a generation of young journalistic and art photographers. Her Ballad of Sexual Dependency, published as a book in 1986, shows people under the influence of drugs and alcohol in intimate and sometimes painfully raw situations. Goldin’s emotional directness culminates in her self-portrait Nan one month after being battered taken in 1984 (Tate P78045). Like Goldin’s subjects, Billingham’s family appear entirely at home with, or at least barely conscious of, him and his camera. Extraordinary dramatic moments captured on film, such as a cat flying through the air as a result of being thrown or Ray hanging in space as he falls over, testify to patient and prolonged looking on the part of the artist.
Untitled was produced in an edition of five of which Tate’s copy is the third.
Richard Billingham, Ray’s a Laugh, London 1996, reproduced [pp.94-5] in colour
Mario Testino, Richard Billingham, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2000
Mark Sladen, ‘A Family Affair’, Frieze, issue 28, May 1996, pp.49-50