On Richard Billingham

Informing Contexts : Falmouth University MA

We were invited to review the work of Richard Billingham and reflect on any relationship to our own practice.


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http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/film-2/richard-billingham-bring-photographs-thatcher-era-family-big-screen/ (accessed 2 April 2017)

Sampling the moving and static images of Billingham’s early domestic work renders me uneasy, cautious in how to express my feelings about it because of an innate middle-class, left leaning consciousness about appearing or indeed being patronising or condescending or despairing or in a way fond of the people I mix with where I walk my dog Rory every week where the Black Country overlaps with the city of Birmingham. But I realise that is because Billingham actually gets in there, he was in there, part of it, growing up, watching, capturing and apparently unselfconsciously making a series of images that were it; the life that threw his whole family into a claustrophobic box after selling to a con man the terraced home that had a street, back yard and neighbours. He has produced a view literally from the inside, images that always beg questions; the flight of the cat, the smear of flies, the escapism of huge jigsaws and fags (death at 56) and perpetual alcohol (death at 74).  It is an incredibly consistent body of work, a micro familial study, nowhere are the Ektachrome images of capital cities, smiling faces and beaches that constitute most family slide collections.

Emerging from his foundation course locally and his degree in Sunderland Billingham got noticed and his observations of the ordinary at the 2000 exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham carry the connotations in their titles of his approach to home and photography; family portraits (1990-1996), earlier black-and-white family photographs (1990-1991), a new series of urban landscapes (1992-1997) as well as video stills and four short video pieces: Ray in Bed (1999), Playstation (1999), Liz Smoking (1998) and Tony Smoking Backwards (1998). https://ikon-gallery.org/event/richard-billingham/ (accessed 2 April 2017). Having gazed at Billingham’s images I see an aesthetic that is cramming in the colour, yet poverty, desperation yet a homily to home, clashes of pattern, clashes of flies dying in the kitchen, clashes of people, clashes of need.  They are there, they are in your face.  He chose to make images perhaps to understand, perhaps to make a memory, perhaps he “sought a more critical understanding of the reality of his daily life” to quote Cotton in Ray’s a Laugh .

To gaze at the images one pleads to know more more; why, how, who? No one knows if a film will be good until the critics write and the cinema audience grows.  Similarly Billingham didn’t know this series would pluck him from the pack and make famous not just him but those to whom he would be tied for ever through birth.  I am certain this drew out his protective stance towards his subjects when the gaze was not just an audience in a gallery, but the gallery was Tate Britain’s Turner and the press and media always thrive on the Tate’s ability to promote and provoke.  The biographic photographer’s eye was fixated on his own, his nearest and thus he naturally sought, as a reaction to the interest, to the media gaze to protect them. I would too.

At the Kunstmuseum exhibition Ich, zweifellos, Wolfsburg, 2009-2010 http://www.photography-now.com/exhibition/63156 (accessed 2 April 2017) Billingham was shown alongside some established big names Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman and Beat Streuli. The show’s theme translates as Undeniably Me.  There could be no better way of embracing Billingham’s work under that banner.

In another show, entitled Damaged Romantics, https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/exhibition/damaged-romantic-011309-04409/ (accessed 2 April 2017) we perhaps peel away at some of Billingham’s thinking in an interview, “Observing viewers’ reactions to these early works, Billingham commented, “I quickly came to realise that most people only saw the surface of the images,” adding “I don’t think most people saw the beauty underneath or how well the pictures were composed.”

In an interview with Tim Adams in March 2016 we get more insight and a reminder about managing viewers; the gallery and the context of the web https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz (accessed 2 April 2017) We talk about the line between exploitation and documentary; did Billingham worry about crossing it when he photographed his family?  “Not really. That’s why you put them in a gallery,” he says. “You frame them in a certain way to allow a particular reading of them. But now you have the internet, the pictures are all there out of context…” Does that bother him?  “With the photographs I tried to make them as truthful as I could and hopefully that element overcomes any exploitative element,” he says. “I think there was a warmth to them.”  The interview goes on to lay before us the explicit reality, should we be under any misconception about the actuality of living in that tower block “But there was a weakness there in Ray and Liz that he must have hated, when his brother was taken into care and so on? “No,” he says. “A vulnerability. I just hated growing up in that tower block. I didn’t like being unable to walk out of the door. You had to get in the lift and people would piss and shit in the lift and spit on the walls. You had to be careful never to lean on anything.””

I agree with the statement, “Where can something so tragic be at once so aesthetically magnificent? Where can hopelessness, failure and darkness be propped up to enjoy so voraciously… only in art” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4726608/Meet-the-parents.html (Links to an external site.) (accessed 2 April 2017).  The series of images are made to show not just a method of practice focused on reality, but to convey the real, a kind of naked frankness that is enthralling and embraces an idea through the convenient means, the camera.  They are moments which most certainly strike on viewing, for which Barthes can be applied “This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). BARTHES, R. (1981). Camera Lucida: reflections on photography. New York, Hill and Wang. (pp26-27).

Billingham’s work has now progressed and such shows as this in Eastbourne in 2015

http://www.townereastbourne.org.uk/exhibition/richard-billingham-panoramic/ (accessed 2 April 2017) exhibit his quite intense panoramic landscapes.

Then there is the transition to seek funding for a film through a Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/68852125/ray-and-liz, so Billingham has managed to find a line between protection and publicity through the explanation of a film.

Reflecting on my own practice I see two strands to Billingham’s work, the brutal conveyance of his human circle which in many ways could not be further than my own work (except perhaps for the brutality of demolishing thoughtful, fine and robust structures from the Twentieth Century and casting them to dust to make way for the wealth making machinery) but the study of the ordinary, of things as they are found, the things that are close by, that may not be pretty, may lack a traditional deliciousness, really chimes with me.  I caress concrete as though it is skin, to find lines, pores, smoothness and invite my camera to do the same.  The aesthetic of the banal is easily overlooked, but in Billingham’s case, not.


Influencer : Edgar Martins

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From Edgar Martins, The Time Machine 2010-11

This is a review of an interview with Edgar Martins, an artist who is presently influencing my practice.

Edgar Martins is an accomplished theorist and image maker.  I was signposted to him by a colleague who thought I would appreciate his work in the context of my own practice.  I was privileged to meet him in Paris when I was gazing at the most painterly and poetic print I found in the whole PhotoParis main Grand Palais space in 2016, which was his.  He is highly articulate, determined and technically accomplished.


This short interview captures Martins’ theories and methods around planning his work, usually by brokering relationships with organisations which he knows would offer fertile opportunities to make a series of images.  His series often synthesise the real with the slightly uncomfortable and ethereal.  Because he often photographs building and spaces which are absent of humanity, yet show the tour de force of the human hand, he appeals to my mode of making series of images of buildings which are empty (of seen humanity), yet worthy and often secretive or neglected.  There is a trace of humanity in what I capture.

In this clip Martins describes an exhibition in Cardiff which had installed large scale prints of his work made in Portugal having negated his way into the principal facilities owned by the national energy company.  He demonstrates the socio-economic and political statements made by power companies between the 1920-70’s as not simply functional installations but an architectural manifestation of the “ideology of the modern” and its “aspirational project” aesthetic.  He believes that what he sees is not just about power and its generation and control, but the dream of the technological utopia, yet the paradox between modernism and modernisation, that is to say how modern structures are now functionally dated and modernisation is in train.  He has developed an eye that is attuned to seeing the banal, yet enthralling; he frames the view so as to allow the eye to wonder in all directions at the array of detail within the edifice.  He specifically describes the recce he undertook to arrange his narratives and the images that would be the optimum response to his thoughts and his eye.  Interestingly he references the “saturation of the imagery of dams”, demonstrating an awareness of the cliche, and instead gathered views of the very heart of the operations, away from the heroic scale of a damn and into confined, confided spaces.  He mourns the common and captures the uncommon.

Martin uses the opportunity in this short interview to summarise his whole practice approach by describes photography as having “conceptual tensions” and uses his work to bring together “irresolvable contradictions”.  He applies it as a medium to make space look believable, countered by a disturbing suggestion “that all is not what it seems”.  He cites a “temporal manipulation” in his imagery, a term which I have contemplated and define as the often uncanny visual clues to the passage of time, both in an immediate way, the viewer may query ‘where are the people you would expect to be working in these spaces?’ a point that pervades much of his work.  But one may also question the spaces in the broader passage of time that such industrial facilities dwell.  He later speaks about a “confluence of temporalities, looking to the future” in his exhibited work on the power company. He captures the ideology of the Corbusian ideals and the ideal of “machines for living in” and the counterpoint reality of twenty-first century and the need to regenerate power generation in complex, politically sensitive, globally wired world.

He references a fascination for the topographical surveys of the industrial era and notes the investment into logistics, access, funding and communications that are vested in making a coherent series such as this.  The work was made in 2010 and 2011.  Early in 2010 Sean O’Hagan wrote a piece in the Guardian that reflected on the exhibition “35 years previously on the “New Topographics” a title that was coined by William Jenkins, curator of a group show of American landscape photography held at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York” which, and this is the phrase that caught my eye, when noting the 168 rigorously organised images “taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal”. It included work by Bernd and Hilla Becher who worked in America flowing their German documentary sees.  O’Hagan goes on “The New Topograhics exhibition in 1975 was not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world. Looking back, one can see how these images of the “man-altered landscape” carried a political message and reflected, unconsciously or otherwise, the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities”. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes (Links to an external site.)

In summary, I am studying and reading more about Edgar Martins as I believe his research into the context in which he bases his work is thorough; his planning and execution clearly require the investment into relationships to obtain approval to shoot and to gain the co-operation of the people to move away for each shoot is elaborate, laborious and rewarding.  Add to this the imagery which is framed, composed, thoughtful and of the unseen, acts both as an inspiration and a parallel to my own practice and ambitions. I am driven to document spaces and respect those places in terms of their founding raison d’être, their present role, or often diminished role, in the evolving world of city development.

Above all Martins is anchored in the lineage of photographic documentary history, with a deep rigour of critical and theoretical analysis.