by Richard Billingham
Scalo Press, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 29th 2002
It might seem a simple matter for someone to take
photographs of his family, capturing them at emotionally revealing
moments. But I imagine it is actually
very difficult, which may explain why Richard Billinghams collection of
photographs is so unusual and extraordinary.
The only text explaining these pictures is on the back cover; heres
what it says:
This book is about my close family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He
doesnt like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew. My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she
does smoke a lot. She likes pets and
things that are decorative. They
married in 1970 and I was born soon after.
My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now
back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Rays a laugh but doesnt want to
be like him.
One of the first photographs shows a housing estate, presumably
in the area where Billinghams family lives.
Its a typical sort of place, surprising free of trash or litter. Some houses have laundry hanging up on
washing lines in the back gardens.
These pictures shows on what goes on inside at least one of those
father Ray has gray hair, mostly uncombed, and tattoos; he is shorter and
thinner than his son Jason. Liz is much
bigger than Ray and also has impressive tattoos. When they fight, she gets the better of him. Several pictures show him with a bloody
nose, and her with a clenched fist. But
there is also peace between them; we see them hugging, and even more touching,
her offering him a handkerchief to clean the injuries he just gave him.
also has pets: dogs, cats, and at least one rodent. Many of the photographs show the pets living in the chaos of the
family, or fighting with each other.
The most striking picture shows a cat flying through the air after being
thrown by Ray; it looks calm and poised to land, but Ray looks crazy. There are a couple of pictures of wildlife:
a duck on water and a bird in a tree.
Its not clear why there are included, but maybe Billingham took them
when he was taking a walk to get away from the family madness.
One of the
more shocking things that these pictures show is the squalor the family lives
in. In the kitchen, the walls are
splattered with brown stains. Another
picture shows fresh purplish liquid running down a wall. My guess is that its
either red wine or blood. Other older
stains cover the same wall. But other
parts of the house are kept clean: Liz takes pride in collecting colorful
porcelain figures and they look as if they are dusted regularly.
contrasts run throughout the book. Ray
is often captured at his worst, half conscious. In one astounding photograph, he is falling down, maybe off the
chair he was sitting on. But in other
pictures, he is calm and even cheerful.
This mixture is most conspicuously joined in the cover image, with Rays
head on a pillow, slightly out of focus. His eyes are almost closed, and his
face is in a half-grin/half-grimace. Rays
a Laugh is a great book.
A note about this paperback
edition, which I bought for myself from Amazon.com: after only a week of owning
the book, the cover started becoming unglued from the book. Readers might want to find a used hardcover
version of the book rather than get the paperback, because this is certainly a
book to open completely, in order to be able to see the pictures spread over
two pages clearly, and this means the spine will get some hard use.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.