Richard Billingham may not have been aware of the “despairing points of domestic life…within contemporary photography” as Cotton puts it, but he was searching for a similar theme just coming from the direction of painting rather than photography. He mentions being influenced by Walter Sickert’s domestic tableau (Fallis) and by turning his research upon the nearest thing available to him (i.e. his own family) he managed to capture something more powerful instead.
The power of his work is predominantly down to it’s raw authenticity, which is why I found it strange to hear him planning to recreate the early images with moving image using actors and a script in an attempt to gain closure on the work. I am concerned this will dilute the meaning as the strength of that early work was in it’s truth – nothing was staged or enacted (unless you classify his search for composition ) and I also find the use of still image in the work to be essential as it allows us the time to linger over every little detail to build up the complete narrative of this wasted(?) life his father led.
As with many artists he uses the most apt medium and tools to build up the final body of work his mind visualises. When he talks about reflecting the work of Constable in some of his landscapes – the choice of poor quality cameras with their resulting drop-off of focus and vignetting is something that help create the atmosphere of the shots; something that could not have been achieved with medium or large format cameras which you might think would be the essential tool for such landscapes.
In the interview Billingham states all of his work has a common theme running through. I find, from my viewpoint that I struggle to correlate this with the separate bodies of work. Some are so intensely personal they are most obviously autobiographical, yet when we consider his serene landscapes they are much closer to a search for an aesthetic form; unless we dig into the depths of psychoanalysis to ask whether the serenity in the natural environment represents a search for the clean air, space and natural beauty that was denied to him during his youth.
There is a tradition within Victorian art (and photography) which drew upon classical themes of tragedy which positively revels in melancholia. I do not think it fair to lump Billingham’s work in with the Victorian chocolate box style of consumptive painting. However art has always enjoyed the tragic as much as celebrating the aesthetically beautiful; just consider the works of the Pre-Raphaelite’s which combines the two.
From my viewpoint what I take from Billingham’s work is his search for painterly compositions; my intent is to be far more poetic with my captures; still authentic and truthful but with a more complimentary air.You can see the influence of a painters eye in the final photographs – they are composed in the manner of recognisable classical tropes. You can almost say – yes that’s a Carravagio; and that’s a Rubens. But his social commentary is more on the lines of domestic compositions of Vermeer (which Jessica Lack picks-up on) rather than the damning of etchings of Hogarth. The majority of photography (leaving aside scientific or forensic) could be described in two forms; either ‘cruel’ or ‘tender’. Context is key when reading Billingham’s work – if it had been initially printed in something like The Daily Mail then we know the connotation would be from a less than complimentary viewpoint, but taken into the gallery context then we are already in a more gentle frame of mind when it comes to our thoughts – we automatically are more tender when we read the body of work and this I think gives it the respect it is justified.
COTTON, Charlotte. 2004. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson. p.151
Falls, G. [online] Available at http://www.utata.org/sundaysalon/richard-billingham/ [accessed 2nd Apr. 2017]
Lack, J. (2010) [online] Available at https://www.creativetourist.com/articles/art/uk/animal-magic-richard-billingham-qa/ [accessed 2nd Apr. 2017]