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7 February 2011
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We Are Family

Liz Shaking Fist at Ray by Richard Billingham

Liz Shaking Fist at Ray © Richard Billingham

We all have family pictures somewhere close to hand, but as the world of photography became increasingly introspective, subjective and confessional the door to family life, usually closed, was kicked wide open. The very private was becoming very public.

Artist Richard Billingham didn't care about how his family ought to look when he turned his gaze on them and their situation at the heart of working class life in Thatcher's Britain. Nor was he concerned about photography when he was living with his father Ray. He was simply a would-be painter in need of a patient model

"I was living in this tower block; there was just me and him. He was an alcoholic, he would lie in the bed, drink, get to sleep, wake up, get to sleep, didn't know if it was day or night. But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than say 20 minutes at a time so I thought that if I could take photographs of him that would act as source material for these paintings and then I could make more detailed paintings later on. So that's how I first started taking photographs." (Richard Billingham)

Billingham's snap shots form a kind of family album no ordinary family member would ever make, let alone show. This is not a family life of fake smiles and awkward calendar events. They're more like a backstage glimpse of the chaotic rehearsals. It's a view that turned Billingham from a would-be painter into a celebrated photographer.

"My dad had moved into my mum's place by this time and I could not believe how it looked. She'd had two years away from my dad so she had created her own psychological space around herself that was very 'carnivalesque' and decorative. There were dolls, jigsaws everywhere. She'd got load of pets by this time; she had about ten cats ... two, three dogs." (Richard Billingham)

Extract from 'We Are Family', Genius of Photography (Wall to Wall)

We Are Family

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