In one image, a drunken, disheveled man dips a jug into a bucket of home-brewed beer that sits next to his chair in a squalid living room. In another -- a close-up -- a woman eats a slice of pizza. She's... [more]
In one image, a drunken, disheveled man dips a jug into a bucket of home-brewed beer that sits next to his chair in a squalid living room. In another -- a close-up -- a woman eats a slice of pizza. She's obese, covered in tattoos, and wearing a weird assortment of shabby clothes; the pizza oozes from her hands. You feel immediate uneasiness. You hope the scenes are staged.
Captured by the camera, the people in these photographs become icons of a degenerate life. Their eyes stare vacantly into the lens or blankly across a room. Their clothes stretch to hide indifferent expanses of flesh or hang lifeless across their skinny bodies as if their spirits had taken flight. And maybe they have. On the emotive scale, the images conjure up something midway between the disgusting and the surreal, passing through the poignant, sad, and depressing along the way. You are glad these people are not your family, or possibly ashamed that, in some ways, they are.
These intimate and starkly candid photographs were born of a teenager's love of painting. While a student of art at Bourneville College of Art and Sunderland University in his native England, Richard Billingham decided to create a portrait series of his dysfunctional and impoverished family. He needed studies for the projected paintings. And with the cheapest camera and film available, he managed to capture his family members in their most painterly moments. His mother, for example, lounges across a couch in a formless house dress, arms above her head in an almost classic pose.
Confronted with such images, the viewer can dissociate himself from the inherent painfulness of the subject matter and see an underlying beauty. Billingham transforms the featured men -- his father and brother -- into sinewy sculptures that resemble Rodin's "Burghers of Calais," with their prominent tendons and muscles. But if Rodin focused on the life swelling and breathing inside his bronze figures, Billingham captures the "life without."
One day, Billingham saw his photo studies in a new light. They were no longer just fodder for paintings but works of art in themselves. As such, they performed a kind of metaphysical work for the young artist: he realized that by taking these searingly honest photographs he was transforming his relationship to other art students, to his family, and to himself. The images were initially put into book format with the title "Ray's a Laugh." (Ray is the artist's chronically drunk father). The book caught the attention of Charles Saatchi, and Billingham's images ended up in the "Sensation" exhibit, securing him an international reputation. [show less]