Paul Greenfield MFA, ARPS

Richard Billingham (1970)

It is just about 30 years since Richard Billingham picked up a camera and focused it on his alcoholic father, Ray, and his violent mother, Liz, and the Black Country council flat in which they lived. The pictures were intended as studies for paintings, but they took on a life of their own. A tutor on Billingham’s art degree course at Sunderland University came across the photographs in a plastic bag and Billingham ended up displaying them in all their flash-lit squalor: toothless and shirtless Ray cradling pop bottles of home brew; Liz, with her lavishly tattooed slabs of arms and vast floral print frocks, lost in her jigsaw puzzles or TV dinners. Taken together – “Ray’s a Laugh” is what Billingham called them – they seemed to provide a tragicomic through-the-keyhole of degraded post-Thatcherite Britain. Charles Saatchi included Billingham’s work in his 1997 Sensation show, alongside Damien Hirst’s shark and Tracey Emin’s tent.
Up until their premature deaths about a decade later, Billingham’s parents were mostly oblivious to the fact that they had generated a Turner prize nomination and global gallery fame. Billingham, however, who made his reputation as an art photographer on the rawness of those pictures, still felt he had unfinished business with them and with his adolescence. The result of that is Ray & Liz, a feature film he has written and directed that breathes claustrophobic life back into the original stills. In advance of release, it was shortlisted as an outstanding debut by Bafta and won the same category at the British independent film awards.
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