Academic journal article Afterimage

Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham's "Ray's a Laugh" Series

Academic journal article Afterimage

Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham's "Ray's a Laugh" Series

Article excerpt

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. (2)



Billingham's family series is often seen as a representation of poverty, even a "human catastrophe." (3) 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. (4) 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. (5) For Mark Durden in Parachute: "Billingham's representation of his working-class family's poverty and violence ... [stages] personal degradation and suffering." (6)

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 [empty set]rskou 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. …

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