A Landmark Look at Family Dysfunction

Estimated read time 3 min read

Talking to Billingham, though, I was struck by how much he spoke about the pictures in “Ray’s a Laugh” in purely formal terms. “When a photographer makes a picture, they’re looking through the frame and they’re trying to get everything to balance,” he told me. “I’m not even looking at facial expressions and things that much. So the narrative context—maybe that’s subconscious?” He said that taking photos had helped him to step back from the fray of family life. “I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I realized that I could sort of see where I lived from the outside,” he recalled. “You know, if you do an etching, and after a few hours you’ve been really involved in the etching, and then you ink it up, and you put the paper on, and you peel the page back, you suddenly see it like a mirror image. You see it like another person for a moment. You’ve been really stuck in it. And then you think, Oh, that’s what it really looks like.”

Perhaps most surprising, in our era of the grievance narrative and the trauma plot, is Billingham’s insistence that he bears his parents no ill will. Describing his early childhood, before his parents lost their house and moved him and his brother to the tower-block apartment in which he shot “Ray’s a Laugh,” he said that he has mostly “happy memories,” despite scenes in “Ray & Liz” that would suggest otherwise. “I probably did go through a phase where I was angry, like all teen-agers do,” he told me. “But by the time I was taking the pictures I think I’d been through that.” Ray and Liz are no longer alive, but, according to Billingham, they never had hard feelings about the photos, either. He recalled being nervous, in 1998, when the BBC débuted a video work he made titled “Fishtank,” showing his family at home, drinking, fighting, and aimlessly living their lives. “I was a bit afraid that everyone sees that on the telly, and the neighbors are going to see it, and the next day, maybe if they go out, people are gonna make fun of them,” he said, of his parents. “And they did go out the next day—they went down to the market. Well, people had seen it, but they said things, like, ‘I saw you on the TV last night. You’re famous.’ ”

#Landmark #Family #Dysfunction

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