Brief:- Photography is often used as a tool to document the specificity of visual appearances. We’re all familiar with this use in passport photography, anthropological photography and crime photography. There’s no pretence at aesthetic quality: the photographer points the camera at the subject and tries to take a neutral ‘visual document’ which stands as visual evidence for what it represents. This mode of making pictures can be useful to all photographers as a means to research their subject. Whether this results in ‘finished’ pictures or not doesn’t really matter; it’s a means to gain visual knowledge. Take a look at Richard Billingham’s Ray’s A Laugh – a collection of family portraits originally taken as visual research for a painting project. It’s important to make a distinction here between what we can know through experience and verbal language and what is specifically visual. Thoughts aren’t visual and neither are emotions, although you can photograph the physical manifestations of these. Political ideologies aren’t visual but you can photograph people and events that illustrate them.
Fig. 1. Untitled RAL 6 (1995)
Fig. 2. Untitled R (c1995)
Initial thoughts:- Family life, snap shots, nothing significant, photo’s that anyone can take of their family. Documents of lower class, family life that is stricken by poverty and social exclusion. Taken by a family member with a resentment to the lifestyle that they have been brought up with? Desolation, unhappiness, drunkenness, degradation. Ray appears significantly underweight, possibly brought about by alcoholism/alcohol dependence. He struggles to eat properly, despite the full plate of food its unlikely that he will finish it, he’s drunkenly falling to sleep and his dinner will soon be spilled upon him. Liz, probably drinks but is not dependant, her addiction and way of coping with her emotions and the struggle of a life of exclusion and poverty is via food. Hopelessness, despair, life is hard. Irony – Ray most certainly does not appear to be a laugh.
Now this is where photography becomes interesting. Billingham took these photos as research for a project, and from the brief there is an assumption that these are a record of ‘what is’, apparently neutral, dispassionate and a visual record. My reading of the photos is entirely the opposite and is cognitive, emotional, symbolic and has a reading of the families circumstance and lifestyle that is based upon my perspective. This is of note because it suggests that if I am taking test photos, or making photography for my own visual research then the viewer may have a response that I was not even exploring, Maybe.
However, I argue that it is impossible to record a subject that you are emotionally involved with from a neutral perspective. If I had have walked into the family home and taken the exact same photos at the exact same moment, would my distance from Ray and Liz reduce the emotional impact upon the viewer? From my own photography I believe so. When I presented assignment one to my tutor, she picked up my discomfort and lack of emotion in two of the photos, both were photo’s that I didn’t feel a connection with the subject.
In my opinion Billingham was exploring his emotions through his visual research. If we are honest here the research was done for a painting, the painting was not going to be neutral, it was meant to be expressive and have an impact, and this is what was being photographed, the emotions that Billingham felt about his parents.
Figure 1 Billingham, R; 1995; Untitled (RAL 6) [Fuji long-life print on aluminium]; AT: https://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/richard_billingham.htm (accessed on 03/06/2018)
Figure 2 Billingham, R; 1995; Untitled (R [Fuji long-life print on aluminium]; AT: https://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/05/richard-billingham-rays-a-laugh.html (accessed on 03/06/2018)
Feature Image Billingham, R; c1995; Untitled (RAL) [Fuji long-life print on aluminium]; https://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/05/richard-billingham-rays-a-laugh.html (accessed on 03/06/2018)