By Denny, Ned
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4632
Like Richard Billingham, I went to Ethiopia without quite knowing why. I had a week off work, Addis Ababa as foolhardy a destination as any, and so I pre-empted good sense and bought a ticket. I mention this because Billingham's photographs of the country (a place, according to him, "where normal people wouldn't think of going") have something of the heroic pointlessness of such ventures. They are beautiful but vacant, as though his real subject was not so much Ethiopia, as a longed-for peace or emptiness, the void at the edge of the world. All of which could hardly contrast more strongly with Ray's a Laugh, the lurid family album that made Billingham's name. Whereas those pictures were taken within the formidably intense confines of his parents' council flat, the more classical photographs in his latest show at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery all derive from his subsequent wanderings. And while Ray's a Laugh evoked the grotesque, low-life I poetry of Dutch genre paintings (the flung cat, the toothless grin), th e new work aspires to the more rarefied sublimity of the Dutch landscape.
But in being asked to think of Cuyp and Ruysdael when we look at these photographs (the gallery blurb also mentions Claude, Turner and Constable), we are led to the edge of the gulf that separates photography from painting. On a fairly superficial level, the comparison holds up. Ethiopian Picture IV (2002) does indeed bear a certain resemblance to Cuyp's early landscapes, the reddish-brown of a scrubby roadside bank glowing beneath a pale blue sky. In terms of composition, too, these photographs have a calm grandeur that elevates them far above the average holiday snap. They seem as considered and deliberate as his earlier shots were fortuitous and snatched. Yet in appropriating the "look" of great painting, Billingham exposes photography's limitations. Whereas an Aelbert Cuyp has the magical radiance of a landscape rebornin the mind, a photograph is the result of a chemical process. The artist has been bypassed. And so all of Billingham's new pictures become images of the same melancholy absence, which is the absence of the human heart. This is just what makes them compelling (he has even spoken of wanting to "take a photograph that is not a picture of something and is just a picture of the space"), but if we come thinking of paintings we'll come away disappointed.
If photography can suffer from an excess of accuracy, showing us merely what we already know to be the case, it can also take life from any small distortions that mar the literalness of the image. …