Photographer and filmmaker Richard Billingham, uses a unique method of facing the memories of his feral family life growing up on a Midland’s council estate. The artist creates the most beautifully disgusting photographs that encompass how vital the documentation of real life is, creating something so unsettling and repulsive while simultaneously prepossessing and peaceful.
The artist uses a distinctive form of subconscious rumination. His photographic work was originally intended for use as source material for painting. It was unknown to him that his photographs had a much deeper and underlying importance. His work now takes the subject matter of caged animals; reminiscent of his earlier work: he and his parents cooped up in their council flat like untamed animals in a cage, unable to escape their uninviting reality, rancid walls consumed with dirt and wild dysfunctionality. Both of the photographic series' express despair and desolation.
In 2016, Billingham produced the first part of his three-part film, Ray documenting his father’s self destruction after his wife, Richard’s mother, Liz, became estranged from the family. Ray is a visual depiction of Richard’s memory. He portrays his father becoming a secluded prisoner in his own bedroom due to his chronic alcohol addiction. The first visual segment is the battle for control over Ray by Liz, and neighbour Sid.
Part of me feels unsympathetic to the way the film has been produced as it is recreated with actors. The acting aspect of the film diminishes the aesthetics of real-life quality values, even though they can be seen in the artist’s family photographs. Billingham has recreated the film the way that he interpreted it in life, but the events taking place in the film are somewhat fabricated. The words and actions are incomplete and we are seeing Ray being acted from the artist’s point of view - not from real life events.
However, the message is still resonant. I have experienced childhood trauma in the form of alcoholism and can thoroughly relate to the film. Yet it appears that what we see is only the surface. Although we’re seeing what Ray was like through his son’s eyes, the film somewhat lacks the basic emotional depth that really grasps the viewer.
Nevertheless, the emotionless qualities of the film are a harsh reality of what an alcohol addiction is really like. Drink is the only thing on the alcoholic’s mind; regardless of whether they’re emotionally torturing their loved ones. The living conditions and poverty are a secondary thought to the primary selfish needs of alcohol.
Billingham’s film, Fishtank (1998) is an extreme juxtaposition to Ray. The realistic comparisons between Ray and Fishtank are noticeable. The way that Fishtank is produced shows the grittily realist dysfunctionality of Billingham’s family life. The film is made from real life events currently happening in the family home and we can see the way that Ray naturally acts when he believes no one is watching.
While there are some beautifully happy moments in Fishtank; when we diminish the laughing and smiling, it becomes apparent the conditions the family are living in are treacherous and traumatising. The grim reality of the situation alludes to the parent's neglectful nature towards their home and to a certain degree, their children’s psychological state.
Although we can clearly see that the Billingham family are watching a documentary about fish, leading us to believe this is what the film is named after; we can question whether the name itself sheds more light into the way that the artist perceives his father; confined in a metaphorical fish tank. Ray is the fish and alcohol is the water. In Ray’s addicted mind, he needs the intoxicating fluid to survive.
The way Billingham documents his family life appears to be a display of deep psychological loneliness, and the way he photographs caged animals is comparable to the way he perceives his life. The level of unease he can express with something so simple, suggests he is more comfortable with neglect than with beauty.