“My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew. My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she smokes a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but he doesn’t want to be like him.” Richard Billingham, 1996
Richard Billingham’s refreshingly direct pictures of family life stunned the artworld when first exhibited in the 1990s. We re-visit these iconic photographs, now shown alongside videos from the same era.
Hours of patient looking are behind Billingham’s snap-shot technique which allows him to capture startling images of his family life as Ray hangs dramatically in space as he falls from a chair, or moments of quiet tenderness as Liz nurtures a kitten. Most of the time, his family are barely conscious of his camera. Behind its lens, the act of photographing allows Billingham a certain detachment from the chaotic life around him. Yet there is also a sense of the lens probing, with a curiosity of wanting to know more about the people he clearly loves.
Caught on out-of-date film loaded into a cheap instamatic camera, these photographs were originally intended as studies for Billingham’s art school paintings. Once they had been exhibited, Billingham stopped photographing his family – the impulse could never be the same. Instead, he made videos and in 1998 brought us ‘Fishtank’. Screened on TV, the Billinghams were channeled directly into our sitting rooms. Alongside other short films in the show we find ourselves once again being forced to consider our own strengths and vulnerabilities alongside those of Ray, Liz and Jason. All of a sudden, we are all too aware of what it is to be human.
This exhibition has been made possible through the support of Anthony Reynolds Gallery, the Arts Council Collection and Artangel.
‘Fishtank’ is part of The Artangel Collection, an initiative to bring outstanding film and video works, commissioned and produced by Artangel, to galleries and museums across the UK. The Artangel Collection has been developed in partnership with Tate, is generously supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Foyle Foundation and uses public funding from Arts Council England.