About the work




     Untitled, 1994
SF A4 colour photograph
158 x 105 cm
The picture is a portrait of Billingham's parents in their home. The slightly oblique angle and shaken quality suggest that the picture is a spur-of-the-moment snapshot capturing a tender moment between the parents.

In theory this could be a picture from most people's photo albums – and then again: this is no typical family subject, such as a birthday, a cosy dinner or a holiday snap.
For at the Billingham's the everyday is humdrum and far from fun.

Moreover the picture fails to meet the fundamental demands of family portraits: we cannot really see the parents' faces and the home does not seem to have been prepared for the shoot. Furthermore the photograph is titled Untitled – a clear indicator of modern art.

The picture is part of a series of Billinghams family photographed in their home in the Midlands. Economically or emotionally they are clearly no model family: the apartment is dingy, messy and cluttered with all manner of garish, kitschy knick-knacks.

The series presents us with a way of life we usually only see in TV documentaries. Liz, the obese mother with the floral dresses and the bad teeth, dwarfs Ray, the father, who is frail and drunk most of the time. Ray is an alcoholic and most of the photographs in the series find him drinking home brew from an assortment of containers. Brother Jason, who was removed from the home but is now back, also appears in several photographs.

In this picture Billingham has captured his parents in a rare, tender moment; more often than not they are photographed arguing or raving about in a drunken stupor.

Common to all the photographs is that the subjects never seem to notice the photographer's presence; apparently we are presented with the direct and uncensored reality. Although the family ignore Billingham's presence, we are alerted to the fact that he is photographing: the flash causes red eyes or as in ARKEN's picture an obvious highlight and reflection in the centre of the photograph.

Richard Billingham's art in general
While still an art student at the University of Sunderland Billingham began photographing his unemployed and marginalised family in their Birmingham home in the early 1990s. A native of the Midlands, a part of Great Britain that experienced an economic recession in the 1970s and 1980s, Billingham worked as a sales assistant in a supermarket after finishing his studies but continued taking pictures of his family.

Originally the photographs were meant to serve as sources for paintings but that never came to anything. Billingham used cheap film, long past its sell-by date, and had them developed at a nearby chemist's which resulted in the gaudy and stained appearance.

The subjects ensure the impression of patent authenticity. Billingham has not attempted to gloss over reality, quite the contrary. The traumatic subjects, the marginalised family, enhance the authenticity of the pictures. Furthermore the style and lack of finesse accentuate the strong realism and our impression of witnessing the genuine article, as seen from England's underbelly.

In this manner Billingham's picture resembles documentary photography rather than art photography which is concerned with colours and shapes. Here the subject prevents the aesthetic analysis from becoming the primary approach to the work.

However, closer scrutiny reveals that Billingham is very deliberate about his 'random' angles and compositions; we are presented with a well-thought-out slice of the family's life.

Richard Billingham moves in a zone between the personal documentary, found in family pictures, and ethnographic and social investigations. There is a noteworthy parallel with the 1990s penchant for staged reality, especially as communicated through TV docusoaps, etc.

Billingham also stages his reality but his result mimics the authentic, the real, thus positioning him in an essential trend in 1990s art in which artists are committed to the lived reality and in their expressions seek a form of 'everyday aesthetic'. It is as if art is closer to reality, warts and all, than ever before. Billingham's pictures look like something we could have photographed – almost.

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