Kitchen sink drama
Richard Billingham takes photographs of his family. Raw, real and revealing, the images offer an alternative to the happy family snap. Susanna Beaumont discovers the art of real-life photography. Snaps of the folks back home feature in the belongings of many a kid who has grown up and left home — photos of holidays or festive cheer —jovial dad. tiddly mum. grumpy sibling. Perhaps the grown-ups look falsely cheery for the camera. but nonetheless there's usually a setnblance of happy families.
Richard Billingham has photos of his folks — taken by himself. There‘s his father Raymond. mother Elizabeth and younger brother Jason and an assortment of cats and (logs. Usual kind of set up. you might say.
But Billinghani's photographs could illustrate a newspaper article on inner-city deprivation. unhealthy eating habits or the horrors of alcoholism. Like Hogarth's engravings of gin-swilling |8t|i century mothers or (iustave Dore's pictures of l9th century slum living. Billingham's snaps tug the consciousness of viewers with a cosy home life. Sinacking ofevery Hampstead dweller's idea of the dysfunctional family. Billinghani's own family is shown in all its/iii rle siee/e daily domestic reality.
Raymond Billingham is a chronic alcoholic. who. as far back as his son Richard can remember. has drunk heavily — at one time he kept a bucket of home brew next to the bed for easy access. He has not worked since he was made redundant as a machinist in I980.
Elizabeth Billingham doesn't drink but smokes a lot and is overweight. Jason works occasionally. but mostly hangs around the family home — a flat in a Birmingham tow er block.
In Colour images. Billingham captures Raymond Ill his vest. Elizabeth in her Iloral dresses. Jason looking dejected. meals eaten on the settee. a chaotic menagerie of animals. Raymond set to keel over -- all against a backdrop of claustrophobic clutter and rampant kitsch. While the bourgeois voyeur might accuse liillingham of revealing his folks in a harsh light. he believes he is‘ltisl presenting reality.
‘After all. there are millions of other people in Britain living similarly.‘ he says ‘htit I don't do it to be political. they would be very different photographs if I did.‘
The social realism of domestic life beyond the suburban idyll is explored by many contemporary photographers. such as Nick Waplington. who now go for the lly-on-the wall approach. Billingham is no lly. though — he is a family member. His family's response to his photographs. which have featured in newspaper articles. a book and are now doing the rounds of Britain's galleries. has been totally favourable. "l‘bcy
Household drama: Ilichard Billingham’s photograph oi his parents Raymond and Elizabeth
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like the work. they feel like celebrities.‘ says Billingham.
It was six years ago while studying art that Billingham. now 36. first started photographing his family. Needing reference material for his painting. he turned to the world he knew most intimately — his home life.
There was initial embarrassment. ()ther students appeared to come from different social backgrounds. but Billingham discovered that ‘by being honest about who the photos and paintings were really of. I could. in effect. disclose my family history and get on with those people much better'.
It is perhaps this honesty that comes across in Billinghain's work. He doesn't pander to the domestic bliss myth that many a politician is currently trying to get us high on. ‘Neither I nor they [his family] are shocked by the photographs' directness because they are well-enough acquainted with havmg to live in poverty.‘ he says.
Ric/rim! Billing/tum 's Ray's A Lunch is it! l’orI/iiliu (Iii/lei'y. Ifdinbiiije/i. Sat 23 an'—-2/ l)ei'. Billing/tum ii'il/ eii e u lecture on his work (I! Napier University: Iz'ilin/mrg/r. lVl’l/ 27 Nov. 6.30pm.
Truth and lies
In The Unbelievable Truth, the Dutch and Scottish artists are all united by theme, it not medium or approach. Taking its title irom the Iial Hartley iilm, the show dives into truth and reality. So watch out ior artists showering you with question marks over what’s iact or iiction. New York- based Dutchman Job Koelewiin is one oi them.
‘I have a problem with reality,’ says Koelewiin. ‘Growing up everyone becomes aware at their environment
go my own way.’
ceiling . . .”.’
Street Blues: a detail oi
A. P. liomen’s Face Shopping
positively embraces every new
‘At iirst I made very ironic and cynical works,’ explains Koelewiin. ‘But alter a tew years I realised that’s easy. In every chapter Don Quixote sees a beautiful woman, a beautiiul mountain or an amazing tree. When I first read the book, that was really tiring but the second time, I realised this is Iluixote’s strength. Every day in Tramway I want to shout “what a beautiful wall, what a beautiiul
Wearing a suit made irom the book’s illustrations, lioelewiin will be making photocopies ior visitors to take home. ‘Ten per cent oi the book is enough for Iiie,’ he says. ‘This is
Swedish, but tells so many iibs, you can’t be sure. ‘Illly work at Tramway is a ventriloquist act with a dummy that looks like me,’ 0loisson explains. ‘We have a dialogue about things in my liie that till now have been hidden away. The dummy does the talking and gives me a lot at shit. She doesn’t want to be me . . . she wants to be laura Dem, but I don’t agree.’
In the midst oi real-lite coniessions, Oloisson mixes lies and dreams, losing truth somewhere along the way. ‘They are a protection ior me,’ she explains. ‘People lie all the time and I don’t know it there’s something wrong with lying - I don’t see the problem, because who knows the truth? I can sit here and tell you this
and people’s reactions. Some wonder why others act the way they do. I had an accident and spent a year in hospital. I thought about my liie and when I re-entered society, I wanted to
Committed and truly exuberant, his ‘own way’ ior Tramway is the pursuit oi a heightened sense oi reality inspired by the classic text, Don Quixote. Here the eponymous hero
llon Quixote’s reality. It has nothing to do with truth but I want to develop a relationship with reality.’
Annee Oloisson is a diiierent proposition: she insists she’s
and it could all be a lie.’ True, truth can be disturbingly close to reality. (Paul Welsh)
The Unbelievable Truth is at Tramway, Glasgow, Fri 15 Nov-Sun 2 Dec.
The List l5-28 Nov I996 73