Tag Archives: Charlotte Cotton

Ray’s a Laugh – Richard Billingham

_FJ10318Rays a Laugh was published in 1996 and some critics including Charlotte Cotton believe that it redefined contemporary narrative. For reasons of price it was impractical to review the 1996 original or the 2000 paperback reprint but I was able to acquire the 2014 Errata Books on Books edition *(1) which is, in effect a high quality photocopy, but is bound as a book and includes an informative essay by Charlotte Cotton. *(2)

Rays a Laugh is fundamentally different from any other photo book that I have reviewed. It is an extended six year narrative about the artists’ chronically alcoholic father and the small dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It has a level of intimacy that could only be achieved by a family member, Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness *(3) that I reviewed recently, is also an inmate study of one man but the photographer is a step back from the subject. in Ray’s a Laugh the father and son’s relationship is being intimately visualised. Interestingly the artist himself compares his approach to that of a wildlife photographer so he clearly believes that there is a level of objectivity and whist, after reading a number of interviews with the artist I better understand why he says that, my initial and emotional reaction is that he, the photographer, is in the picture with his family. This series might be a biography of his family but it is also an autobiography of six highly developmental years in his own life.

This work could be interpreted as being intentionally provocative but Richard Billington says that he didn’t set out to shock or offend anyone *(4), he is just endeavouring to make his work “spiritually meaningful”. I accept that this is his aim but to achieve it he had to produce emotionally charged images and it is inevitable that this level of emotional energy will generate strong reactions in its audience. Given the emotional reaction that this book is always going to generate it seems a valid approach to record my first reactions before I look more deeply. The words I first wrote down were family, personal, private, voyeuristic, revealing, ugly, sad, hopeless, violent, amateur.

The photographs are a vivid and detailed exposé of the inner workings of a poor family living in a tiny, high-rise flat in a depressed area. Ray is a tragic figure, Richard thinks that he was “some sort of mechanic” but he is long term unemployed, alcoholic and unwilling to leave the flat. He drinks, slumps lost in his thoughts, falls over, is sick, sleeps and starts the cycle again. He looks detached, absent, empty and broken. He clearly provokes strong responses from his obese wife Liz who is, more than once, shown with a balled fist threatening him. Liz likes cats, dogs, jigsaw puzzles and cigarettes. Apart from Richard there is another son who is lazy, and potentially addicted to drug taking in general (as opposed to an addiction to a specific drug) and playing video games. In hindsight Billingham says that the themes of addiction and boredom are those that interest him the most but they were not in his mind when taking the photographs.

The photographs, which were taken as studies to help Richard draw gestures for his paintings, are snapshots, often erratically framed, sometimes out of focus and mostly over saturated. This approach is part of the tension created by the series, the viewer expects snapshots to present a universally positive view of family life, with snapshots we record happy events, holidays, weddings, new babies, pets asleep on the sofa, children reaching milestones in their lives. Billingham has brought an amateur feel, a snapshot style, to the negative aspects of his family so the audience is offered documentary style subjects presented as a family album. It is an uncomfortable combination.

If we accept the premise that the buyers of art photography books, visitors to exhibitions, art critics, photography academics and students are rarely park-bench-alcoholics there is another element at play. The audience is taken into an alien world, ugly with poverty, over flowing with social tragedies such as alcoholism, unemployment, obesity and the abandonment of hope and, worse than that, it is inconveniently on our doorstep.  But, this was not created as an objective piece of social documentary, the photographer does not talk about how they set out to change public opinion by revealing democracy’s dark secret. This was created, published and promoted as art, not documentary, and this decision implies that we are being asked to judge its artistic values ahead of the social questions it raises. My point being that with Griffiths or Koudelka we look at their work in the context of social documentary so we know that we must use the photographer’s work as a way of accessing their subject, we know we are being asked to understand the argument that they are making, we also appreciate their skill and consider their work as art but it is presented as documentary first and art second.

In Rays a Laugh the artist sets out to “study the human figure in interior space” *(5), it so happened that his family, and all their baggage were the human figures and the interior space was their flat. He had no political motivation and did not approach or publish his work as social documentary, he offers us his work as art. In an interview with American Suburb X *(5) it is suggested that, if his work encourages us to consider our relationship to class and poverty, we are giving his work deeper meaning than Billingham intended. This insight to the artist’s mind makes the book harder to review, does he wish us to ignore the social implications of his work ? Does he want us to ignore the narrative of hopelessness, addiction and boredom and only see the shapes on the page?

In 1996 we were less exposed to reality TV than we are today but looking at this work in 2014 there is an obvious link to modern documentary-style reality TV that is primarily created as entertainment with documentary and art being someway down the producer’s list of objectives. In both cases art critics and politically motivated observers will ask us to see this type of work as a contribution to the debate on poverty or class or the failure of capitalism but can we see it in those terms if the artist was not politically or socially motivated? Society’s obsession with voyeurism has become a driving force behind social media where we intentionally open our lives to strangers and then complain if they look a little too closely and with our unhealthy interest in the lives of celebrity that has led to “celebrity” being a job as opposed to being the description of a select few. All these examples tend to suggest that we are voyeurs by nature, we like being peeping toms, we are dying to know what happens behind the closed doors of the poor, the unemployed, the benefit claimants, the royals, the rich and the famous.

Another reason that care has to be taken when we inject our own prejudices and agendas into this work is that, if we accept (and why wouldn’t we?) that Billingham started out looking at gesture and form and then became interested in addiction and boredom then, we are looking at themes that are not restricted within one social or economic class. We  should see the unemployed class backdrop as the stage that happened to be there and not an essential element of the themes. We are also warned by Cotton to take care in how we see the book as it is far from the dummy that was created by Julian Germain, Michael Collins (then Picture Editor of Telegraph magazine) and Richard Billingham. Collins believes that Scalo’s treatment was insensitive and, reading between the lines, exploitative. Cotton is effectively saying that many of the political and social agendas that mask Billingham’s true intent are there because the publisher reduced his work to “a prurient spectacle”.

This leads neatly to the question of exploitation. If the photographer had been from outside the family they might be perceived as being opportunistic, a voyeur, exploitive and merely creating drama from misery, and perhaps the publisher was guilty of these things. But, of all the challenging issues this work raises I find this the easiest to reconcile. There is a detached affection in these photos which are the work of a young man whose interest in nature and ambitions to be an artist appear at odds with his environment. I believe he uses his camera and sketch pad as his way of looking at and understanding a family that appear to be sliding down a slippery slope that he has stepped off or avoided ever being on. He may not be rejecting his family but his work has provided him with a screen through which to observe them, a way to translate them into something that he can understand and even use as part of the foundation of his work.

Billingham has said that very few people get beyond the subject matter and can identify the artist’s intention, which is not surprising, given, as we have seen, we are all voyeurs. We want to look at his dysfunctional, addicted and bored family. To understand this work we have to recognise that the most important piece of context is that Billingham was studying for his fine art degree throughout the time he was photographing his family. By placing a camera between himself and the family he could convert their antics into shapes, forms, colours, compositions and artistic structures so he is asking us to look beyond Ray, Liz and Jason to see the underlying patterns that he was photographing.

Sources

Books

(1) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

(2) Cotton, Charlotte (2014) RAL. Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

(3) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html

Internet

(4) Billingham, Richard. Rays a Laugh. American Suburb X – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/07/richard-billingham-rays-laugh.html

(5) Billingham, Richard. (2007)  “Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’; Series” – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/04/theory-reinterpreting-unconventional.html

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Banal and the Topographical Movement

This post is continuing the process of reacting to the comments made by my tutor is his feedback on Assignment 1. He said:

“… I’ll also try to get you to accept the banal and bland as we venture further down the line with this module !  I don’t necessarily expect you to like it, but I’ll need you to know about it and who was involved and why they have approached image making in such a manner etc.”

This was an intriguing comment calling for early investigation as I had not heard of “the banal and bland”  in the context of photography. Little did I realise that this comment would lead me into hours of on-line reading and the introduction to many contemporary photographers whose work I had not seen before. In fact the topic is so large that I have only started to skim the surface both in terms of the people involved and their work. My tutor said that he didn’t necessarily expect me to like it and after about three weeks of intermittent study I can safely say that I do and I don’t but I might have begun to understand some of it.

The more I researched the topic the more photographers names I noted down. Looking for some of their work often led me to other photographers, essays and exhibition reviews which led to more photographers and so forth. After a while I realised that I had to narrow down the research if my aim was to write an essay not a book.

Until the 1960’s the art world mostly had photography placed in a neat box. First and foremost “photographic art” was expected to be presented as black and white prints and those prints would typically display the attributes most closely associated with the medium. Steven Skopik, in his lecture to the National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 (*1), calls this “hyper-availability” and defines these attributes as deep depth of field and luscious and unrealistic exaggerated tonal range which could only be achieved by difficult-to-master large format cameras and complicated dark room processes. Seeing what was to follow I would add to this list that much of this work also conformed to compositional rules inherited from the wider art world.

At some point in the 60s a number of American photographers began to question whether there was another path. In his Hasselblad Award essay in 1998, Thomas Weski (*2b) tells the story of William Eggleston’s visit to a an industrial photofinishing laboratory where he watched an endless stream of amateur photos being processed and printed by machines. This was to be his Damascus Road experience and led to a radical shift in his style from being a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson to becoming a pathfinder in the world of colour photography. But this new style was more than a change of medium, it was a move away from photographing the magnificence of the landscape or the decisive moment, he started to photograph the everyday world around him, mundane, common place, ordinary America in all its normality.

Eggleston was by no means the only photographer turning their back on conventional wisdom and creating serious and thoughtful work away from the main stream. In 1972 Stephen Shore, who had  already made his mark with his black and white photos of Andy Warhol’s factory, photographed a road trip across America in a series of images that were later to be published as “American Surfaces”. To look through these images today they might be interpreted as a nostalgic look at Middle America which would be to miss the point. In an interview with Rong Jiang in 2007 (*3) Shore makes a number of points that define his work in the early 70s. “I wanted to see the ordinary things that were not the news”, “I wanted to see what our culture was really like”. Shore’s early colour photographs of America are what he saw without edit and without embellishment. They range from, what can only be described as snapshots, of people he met, beds he slept in, meals he ate to more carefully composed urban landscapes that faithfully document 1970s America, and therein lies the link to Eggleston. Both men were working in colour, both were photographing a time and place in its entirety, not just beauty nor just ugliness, but just what was there. Shore explains that the beautiful landscape is not difficult to spot, “anyone would notice it” but he believes that you have to be paying close attention to notice the ordinary.

Early in the 1970s tiny, but influential corners of the art world began to notice this new wave of colour photographers. It is important to understand that taking colour photographs was anything but new; magazines, postcards. amateur photography, advertising was all in colour, in fact as Shore points out the only photographs not in colour were in newspapers and art. It is equally important to recognise that whilst Eggleston, Shore and others were photographing the  mundane, ordinary and banal side of America in colour other highly influential photographers were choosing similar subjects to capture in black and white. The “New Topographics” exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House in Rochester NY was, according to Leah Ollman (*4) of the Los Angeles Times and writing in 2009, “a landmark show”, and Sean O’Hagan (*5) writing in The Guardian in 2010, said that it was “not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world.” All but one of the photographers exhibiting in that exhibition presented their work in Black and White; Stephen Shore was the notable exception. But at the time the critics were less complimentary, Ollman says that one of the artists, Frank Gohlke, remembers “that almost nobody liked it”.

In 1976 The Museum of Modern Art exhibited 75 “selected” William Eggleston prints. The prints selected by John Szarkowski, the museum’s Director of the Department of Photography, were in colour. This was the first time the museum had presented a colour photographer’s work and as the exhibition was supported by a catalogue which was also their first publication in colour the art world sat up and took notice. However, it quickly sat back down. Hilton Kramer in the New York Times described it as “perfectly banal, perfectly boring ” and went on to consign Eggleston’s work “to the world of snapshot chic” (*2b). My reading tells me that John Szarkowski was a progressive and far-sighted man who could see that photography as art was hidebound with rules, many of which dated from before any living photographer had been born because they had been passed down from the wider art world. In his press release for the 1976 exhibition, which can be found on the William Eggleston Trust Website (*2a) he talks about a new generation of photographers who were using colour with “a confident spirit of freedom and naturalness”, I especially like his comment that they work in colour “as though the world itself existed in colour”. In the context of banality he makes the key points that Eggleston work is about how he sees the world, how he interacts with his personal world and that his photographs are “fixed facts of the real world impartially recorded by the camera”.

I have focussed my attention on these two men, not because they were the first people to capture the ordinary, the mundane , the banal without comment and without gloss but because at every turn in my research they are named time and time again as major influences on a whole generation of contemporary photographers. Given my objective to write an essay and not a book these constant cross-references led me to mostly spend my time with them and their work. A valid judgement I think as In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Charlotte Cotton (*6) tells us that their greatest contribution was to create a space within art photography to allow a more liberated approach to image-making.

So, that is the history and the on-going influence that is felt by a connected but not formal movement of photographers who moved away from photographing the majestic, the beautiful, or the important and, instead, turned their cameras on what was on their doorstep or what they saw when traveling through America. But, what of their images ? Steven Skopik (*1) argues that the image of a banal subject can become an art form when it is approached in a certain way. He believes that either the banal subject is transformed by the photographer’s technical skills in composition, management of tone (or I presume colour) and lighting so the subject is transformed by the actual process of being photographed in a meticulous manner; or, the photographer can discard technique and form in the service of content which is effectively banal technique, a sort of considered casualness.

Whilst I take his point and can see these facets in some of the work I have reviewed I am coming closer to knowing which style of work appeals and that I can relate to and where I am a lost soul desperately wishing someone behind me would explain why I am looking at “this” photograph.

To return to Eggleston and Shore, or Bernd and Hilla Becher for that matter. Much of their work fits into Skopik’s category of technical skills pointed at a banal subject but it goes much deeper than that. They were consciously documenting a culture by capturing the details of life, whether they were large details such as power stations or small details such as what they ate for breakfast. By its very nature photography captures what has passed, it may have only passed 1/2000 second ago but it is now part of a greater history, by pointing their cameras at mundane, ordinary, day-to-day and banal subjects they were recording the details of life.

I see a parallel with archeology, in the early days of that science the focus was on the huge, the magnificent, the great stories of the world. Troy, Athens, Stonehenge, the Colosseum, empire and great events. The early archeologists were in such a rush to get to the big story, the great find they ploughed through and often discarded the detail, their big questions were about where people lived. The modern archaeologist is more interested in how people lived and why they lived there and why they made “this” or how they made “that”. The form of banality in photography that I have enjoyed getting to know are Eggleston and Shore’s images of an America that, to my generation, was very recent but has already gone. I know that Shore does not want nostalgia to get in the way of appreciating the image but with this work from the 70s and 80s it is unavoidable.

However, the banal image does not have to be of a time long gone to catch my attention. As a new student of contemporary photography I am not able to put photographers into the correct pigeon holes and I note that Charlotte Cotton (*6) says that she is at pains not to fetishise contemporary art photography into categories of style or heritage. Having looked at Eggleston and Shore’s work and come to understand a little of what they were trying to achieve I see relationships with photographers that I am already trying to become engaged with, Camilo José Vergara is systematically documenting the streets of urban America, his images often employ bold colours and strong shapes to present banal subjects such as shoes outside a street shelter. I also think that the banal found its way into the work of Lewis Hine who we can now look back on as a man who documented a specific facet of the American way of life but in his own time was photographing subjects that were common place and mundane. I think I see the point and understand what these photographers are showing me, I respond positively to many of the images and especially like when the mundane detail draws me into explore every corner of the frame.

But…… there is a lot of work that I have found by other photographers that I just do not understand and do not respond to on an emotional level. I am not intending to be judgemental but a series of photographs of concrete storm drain covers and the securing ring for an electricity pole leave me cold. I question why and I think it is a lack of context and a lack of composition that leaves me disconnected. If I pick, nearly at random, a Eggleston image of the detailed landscape, the piles of rubbish in “Troubled Waters” I am drawn in. I like the composition which is thoughtful and, to my eye, precise, it probably uses thirds but it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t. The splash of colour from the orange diamond and then all the detail of the bags. I want to know what is in them, I zoom in to try and read labels on the boxes, I am engaged. There is context, a story line and it is consciously composed.

I think my summary is that, if the photographer wants me to engage with his or her photograph, they are asking me to invest my time in understanding their art. I’m happy to do that if my sense is that the artist has invested at least as much time and hopefully more in putting his or her image in front of me. It can be consciously casual and seemingly unstructured, it can be formal and structured, it can be of mundane content (Eggeston’s rubbish, Shore’s meals) or nearly no content at all (Richard Misrach Untitled 2004 of a women in a vast sea) but I want to sense that the photographer is treating me, their audience, with respect, and that this image is the result of a train of thought and the application of conscious technique.

I have taken a lot from this little piece of research and suspect that I will sub-consiously use many of the ideas that I have read and seen. I have had a long term interest in photography as a record and as I get older often think about how my grandchildren will look at work when I am but a fuzzy memory. I think the process of documenting what is there before it isn’t is a valid contribution and, like the modern archeologist, the real interest may lie in the most mundane or banal subject just because I bothered to notice it and photograph it.

Sources:

Books

*6 Cotton, Charlotte, (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, New Edition. London, Thames and Hudson

On-Line

*1 Skopik, Steven. Steven Skopik Photography. Lecture to the 50th National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 www.ithaca.edu

*2a Eggleston, William. Official website of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust. (First accessed 2014) www.egglestontrust.com

*2b Weski, Thomas. The Tender-Cruel Camera, Essay from the Hasselbald Award 1998. Published on the Official of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust.  www.egglestontrust.com

*3 Jiang, Rong. The Apparent is the Bridge to the Real. An interview with Stephen Shore, June 4 2007. Published at www.americansuburbx.com

*4 Ollman, Leah. ART : Banality, in black and white : Exploring the rise of photography’s New Topographics movement, whatever it may mean. Published on the Los Angeles website November 2009. articles.latimes.com

*5 O’Hagan, Sean. New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal. Published on the Guardian Website, February 2010. www.theguardian.com