Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Richard Billingham - Ray's a Laugh

This is another book suggested by a previous tutor that I loaned from the library:

Ray's a Laugh - Richard Billingham

The images in this book show a family at home and living with the chaos of alcoholism and how that affects all members of a family not just the alcoholic. There are fights, booze in assorted containers, loads of animals, horrific amounts of grime and moments of tenderness. The house is filled with brightly coloured ornaments and shot in a haphazard and most of the time out of focus style that appears to bring a dynamism and spontaneity to the photographs. There is also truth laid bare by the photographer who took the images of his own family (for reference, for portraits that he was planning to paint while at art college.)

From a compositional viewpoint one image stands out for me. Liz (the mother) is wearing a dress ablaze with colour and pattern as she completes a jigsaw puzzle; its pieces match the riot of colour and shape of her dress. This is such a well spotted image. There is another one that looks to be set up by the photographer to me. It is of a cat frozen in mid-air as it flies across the living room. Ray, the father, cowers at the bottom of the photograph. It is a good picture. The chaos of the family life is portrayed well in this one image and I don't doubt many similar events happen at Ray's house all the time.

The sequence of images show a revolving cycle of violence and happiness that must play out several times a day. This provides a strong narrative and contextual thread that runs throughout the book. The indoor scenes were interspersed with the occasional wildlife shot of wild birds. They were done in the same style. A bit fuzzy and out of focus and colours almost bleeding into themselves. I found them a bit strange in the sequence and puzzled over their inclusion. My initial thought is that the chaotic and unpredictability of Ray's home is juxtaposed against the wild animals to show how they (we) often operate by our own natural instincts and self interest to survive.

I can relate to this idea as I have also lived with an alcoholic parent and the deadness of the son's eyes is a sign of withdrawal and self protection that I am familiar with. The whole family has found its own way of dealing with the hand that has been dealt them (whether this be arguing, booze, fags, puzzles, or pets.)

One final point from someone that has survived a similar situation is that chaos is not always on display in such a lurid fashion as in "Ray's a Laugh." That chaos may reign behind closed doors and having lived in a house where the kitchen floor was mopped clean at least twice a day that chaos can to the outside world remain invisible.

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