We Are Family – Richard Billingham
Before attempting my own family photography over Christmas I decided to take a look at the work of Richard Billingham who made informal images.
Richard Billingham thought of himself as a painter and in order to get subjects he decided to take photos of his family. He lived with his alcoholic father and overweight heavily tattooed mother. His parents relationship was fraught and they split up for a period.
The above image represents one of the rare moments when there was harmony in the family, however the tell-tale signs of alcohol abuse are evident with the large bottle of cider on the table. There is a sense that the image was taken hurriedly and using a flash as the reflection has caused a small amount of over exposure but this is almost a feature with the image having that unique authentic vintage feel that many photographers now try to recreate.
Billingham brought us an introspective look into working class family life in Thatcherite Britain with a series of incredible images that were a far cry from the typical happy family snaps. Here we see his parents having dinner on what looks like a sofa bed, whilst the family pets sat close by, his mother who had surrounded herself with a menagerie of pets, including over 10 cats and 2 or 3 dogs. The atmosphere looks casual with one person more engrossed in what I would suspect is the television but they are sat quite far apart and the body language could suggest a certain amount of tension. Neither person is paying any attention to the camera and they seem to be quite use to their sons photographic hobby, there is no attempt to offer any false impressions for the sake of the picture and this reveals the real everyday people.
Richard would have had more time to take this shot and the exposure is fine. I suspect he used flash as I would have imaged there would not have been enough light otherwise.
Billinghams Father never really had a battle with alcohol, he had surrenderd to his addiction years before and now he spent most of his waking hours drinking to oblivion. Billingham was merciless in his documentation of family life and this shot shows the extent he would go to. This image is an example of the lows of alcohol addiction, his father is asleep against the toilet bowl, there is evidence that he has been sick with stains on the front of the bowl. There is a mop and bucket in the corner which suggests that scenes like this on more common than expected.
The relationship between Richard Billingham’s parents was fractious at the best of times and domestic disputes were common place. This did not deter Richards determination to capture all the aspects of his dysfunctional family life. The above image shows one such dispute, the mother has clearly lost her temper and she stands above her husband with a clenched fist. He conversely appears cowed and sheepish and his obvious lack of response suggests he feels to blame. It must have taken a great deal of courage to continue to take pictures amidst such a volatile atmosphere and being forced to witness not only his parents strained relationship but his father’s deterioration as his substance abuse slowly destroying him.