THE fifth in our series of profiles of former students of Bournville’s Art School focuses on Richard Billingham, a photographer whose art explores the issues in his dysfunctional family.
Richard was born on the 25th of September 1970 in Birmingham and received his education in Bournville School of Arts and the University of Sunderland. After finishing college he found a daily job and used the nights to concentrate on his art. He was in dire need of a model he could use for his paintings.
At the time he was living alone with his father Ray, who was an alcoholic and spent his time drinking and staying in bed. However, he was moving too much for Richard to draw a decent painting. So instead he started taking pictures of his father, planning to use them later when he would have time to pay closer attention to the details.
His father then moved back in with his obese tattooed mother Liz – a chain smoker with a fascination for jigsaw puzzles and pets. Richard continued taking pictures of his family on the cheapest film he could afford, giving more authenticity to the pictures when they were processed.
Eventually Liz, Ray and their unruly son Jason stopped noticing the camera in the room with them. That resulted in a series of photographs portraying their family life exactly as it was – no happy smiles and awkward hugs, only raw emotions.
Richard’s photos were first displayed in the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 1994 under the title ‘Who is looking at the family’. Following the success of the exhibition, he came up with the idea of a photobook called ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ which was published two years later.
The book is an unique chance to peek into the world of a working class family struggling with poverty and alcoholism. Among the pictures showing the Billinghams in their worst moments there are some photographs displaying the softer side of the family, in which the affection between the family members and their troubled but human relationships can be witnessed.
In 1997 Richard won the Citibank Photography Prize. In 2001 he was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize for his solo show at the Ikon Gallery. Richard has also published a book with landscape photographs of places important and significant to him. In 2006 he held an exhibition in Warwickshire of photographs based on his memories of Dudley Zoo as a child. After he gained popularity Richard started experimenting with videos culminating in the 47 minutes long film called Fishtank.
Billingham currently holds the position of a lecturer in Fine Art Photography at the University of Gloucestershire.
(Image of Billingham’s work from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rays_a_Laugh.jpg)