PRINT January 1997


ONCE EVERY YEAR OR TWO—and lately less frequently than that—I receive a sort of visitation of art, a visual experience altogether unlike any other. It is, quite literally, what I live my critical life for: an object or an image never before seen, at once entirely strange and perfectly familiar and right. So it was that during a trip to Los Angeles a few months ago someone happened to show me some photographs by a man named Richard Billingham, and I felt the aesthetic equivalent of love at first sight.

The artist is twenty-five or so—just a kid with a camera, and that’s pretty much all I know about him. The few half-hearted attempts I made to find out more yielded very little, and while I don’t ordinarily count myself a member of the Know-Nothing school of formalist aesthetics, I have to admit that I didn’t try too hard, because it was clear that everything about the artist that could conceivably be relevant was in the pictures themselves, particularly as they appear in a volume he published last year called Ray’s a Laugh.

The book is a collection of photographs of the apartment in a lower-middle-class British housing project where his parents live. His primary subject is his father, Ray, an everyday alcoholic who rarely leaves the house; instead he stays in and drinks home brew, puttering around while wearing a series of drunkard’s expressions: delighted, dazed, about six inches short of dead. Aside from Ray there’s a behemoth mother, a brother who comes and goes peripherally, a dog, and a cat. Two or three main characters, then, along with a few extras, and four or five rooms: Ray’s a Laugh is a parlor drama of sorts, as tightly composed as a Pinter play, and considerably more grueling.

Billingham’s home seems, at first glance, to be an almost comically horrible place to be, with its airless rooms stuffed full of broken-down furniture, its violence and abjection, and hopelessness, and mess. It’s the kind of place that usually exists in domestic semidarkness, not because it’s private, but because it’s too tawdry to photograph: until Billingham, I would have thought such things literally would not show up on film, as if Kodak’s chemicals would refuse to capture them. One extended sequence, for example, shows his mother and father right after they’ve had a fistfight; she’s several times his size, and appears to have won; the old man is bloodied, and wears an expression of utter bewilderment and exhaustion. Another one, startling for quite different reasons, shows his mother feeding a tiny, newborn kitten with a syringe, her massive torso filling the frame. A third, in some way the most visceral of them all, is of a white lace curtain hanging down over a window. Gruesome things: still, there’s a certain wild humor to it all—someone, for example, has sketched a hairy cock and balls in icing on a birthday cake, and there is the family cat, hissing at a nonplussed Ray from its spot on the shelf of a credenza.

In a blurb on the back of Ray’s a Laugh, Robert Frank claims “reality and no pretence” for the work. But it would be too bad if that were true: the reality of Billingham’s surroundings is fascinating, but it’s the artifice he brings to bear on it that makes it worth a second look. That said, I should point out that, on some very basic level, Billingham’s may well be the worst photographs I’ve ever seen professionally published, and never mind for now that they’re also some of the best. Almost every rule of photography is badly broken: pictures are out of focus, over-exposed, printed with a grain so visible that the image beneath is almost completely obscured. Half of them are absurdly framed; in one, for example, a dog and Billingham mère’s feet float up in one corner of the picture plane, the rest of which is occupied by a linoleum floor. I assume Billingham uses one of those autofocus and autoexposure pocket cameras; in many cases it looks as if he was none too sober himself when he pressed the shutter button. In any case, his pictures come out as formally bad as my own do: marred by red-eyed subjects, with the focus fixed on some corner of furniture while the main image is blurred, with the glare of the flash reflected in a window, with a corner burned by a flare of light from some unknown source, as if someone had accidentally opened the camera before all the film had gone through and, realizing the mistake, hurriedly closed it. Looking at the work again and again as I’ve written this, I’ve found myself feeling an almost physical pain, and when I show it to friends, they literally gasp and laugh.

But almost no one has missed its power, because everything that’s wrong with the pictures is right with the work, every failure of the image is a success for the art. Such is the aesthetic of our times: there is a desire in effect, almost a policy, of fucking up so completely, yet with such confidence and control, that one’s medium expands. There is, in fact, a kind of contest to see who can make the most appallingly composed image that’s still somehow compelling. Billingham is better at fucking up than any photographer I’ve seen in a long while, and as if to prove that it was deliberate, after the fact if not before, Ray’s a Laugh is punctuated by three ridiculously bucolic photographs of birds preening themselves in some greenery. They’re perfectly good pictures: they look pathetic in the context of the book. Wherever Billingham came from, he’s very smart and very audacious, and he has a truly astonishing eye.

It’s Billingham’s artifice that’s interesting, but I mean more than just his technique: there’s a kind of moral artifice at work in these pictures, too, a frame set around his relationship to his parents. Because photography is almost automatically exploitive of its subjects: that famous and possibly mythic tribe of aboriginals, who believed that the first photographers they encountered were stealing their souls, were more right than wrong. One’s image is among one’s most valuable possessions, and the photographer’s job is to purloin it. I take that to be a fact about the medium, maybe its advantage and maybe its disgrace, more likely just a fact, one in which the viewer is entirely complicit.

So there’s a certain prurience that comes with the contemplation of photography, particularly this kind of verité photography: one inevitably wonders how the photographer got the shots. In Billingham’s case the question is particularly pointed: in only a few of them does anyone seem to be aware that he’s there, though the apartment is small and dark, and his flash is so merciless that one can’t imagine how he went unnoticed. Moreover, some of the pictures are pointedly spontaneous—there is Ray, apparently falling drunk out of a chair, and there is Ray again, in a fit of frustration and annoyance, throwing the family cat across the room, so that the image captures the creature in midair, and there is Billingham’s little brother throwing a tennis ball at Ray’s head. It seems Billingham simply sat in his living room and waited, camera in hand, for something to happen, and while it says something about his parents’ oblivion that they act like he’s not there, it says something even stronger about his own self-imposed emotional distance.

There is a picture of Ray passed out on the floor next to a vomit-bespattered toilet bowl. It’s a remarkable photograph, claustrophobic and disorienting; still, one might notice that Billingham chose to photograph the old man and then publish the photograph, rather than immediately picking him up and cleaning him off. One might ask why he chose to do that, and what it implies. It’s one of the more obvious moral puzzles implicit in photography, but I think it’s worth contemplating again, because doing so will go some way toward explaining why I think Billingham’s work is so beautiful.

I’ve argued before, and will assert again here, that photography, more even than other forms of image-making, is a form of love: the photographer’s love for the sitter, and the variations on attention it inspires. Because the photographer watches the way a lover watches, with a regard at once rapt, alert, fascinated, and ecstatic. I should say that by “lover” I don’t mean, or don’t necessarily mean, an erotic partner, or even a family member or close friend. My point is that photography is a form of devotion: we take pictures of the things we adore, and adore the things we take pictures of. I know I said that photography was exploitive: I don’t think that’s incompatible with what I’m saying now. What makes some photographs great is precisely the balance they strike between devouring their subject and adoring it, and the surprise they inspire at the idea that whatever they’re picturing can bear the weight of just that contradiction.

The measure of a photographer, then, is the quality of the attention he or she brings to bear on the subject before the lens, its depth and subtlety, its appetite and ardor. What, after all, would make a young man of considerable intelligence and ambition spend his days sitting around his parents’ bleak little apartment, taking endless pictures of them? What would justify his doing so? Only that he loves them and loves to look at them, whatever else he may think of them and however else he feels (andof course he may feel almost anything else, including anger, or contempt, or hatred). What would make the pictures worth the attention of the rest of us? Only that he makes that piety manifest, and that it’s convincing. Certainly Billingham has convinced me, which is why I find his photographs overwhelming.

So if the pictures were not of the photographer’s parents, they’d mean much less; they might not mean anything at all, and maybe it would be better to say they wouldn’t exist, since the particular temper of these particular photographs seems so bound up in Billingham’s closeness to his subject, and the distance from which he looks at it, the affection he must have felt to want to take pictures of his father, and the estrangement he manifested in taking the pictures he did. Of course, that’s a paradox: to me it’s the paradox of the Prodigal Son, who proves his filiation only by leaving and returning. Maybe it’s an accident, and maybe it isn’t, but the similarities between Billingham’s formal photographic technique and his moral relationship with his sitters is striking: he does well by doing badly.

I can’t imagine what the kid is going to do next; judging from the way he puts his pictures together, he’s no naïf, but it remains to be seen whether he can find another subject as inspiring of his attention. It may be easy, and it may be impossible. But the pictures he’s taken so far are unlike anything I’ve ever seen: they’ve changed the way I looked at photographs, changed what I thought a photograph could do—at the risk of sounding maudlin or intemperate, I’d say they changed my ideas about what I could love, which is all I could ask of an artwork, and far more than I could ever expect to receive.

Jim Lewis’ second novel, Why the Tree Loves the Ax, will be published later this year by Crown.