Time Out - Richard Billingham at Anthony Reynolds, April 2010 by Nina Caplan
'I was just trying to make order out of chaos,' said the would-be painter Richard Billingham of his reasons for photographing his dysfunctional family back in the 1990s; in fact, he was looking for models for his paintings, and his alcoholic father Ray and obese mother Liz wouldn't sit still long enough, so he picked up a camera. What could be more orderly than a model flattened to two dimensions, utterly acquiescent, never moving from position, or getting tired or cross? And what could be less representative of the people he was trying to paint? At some point, Billingham must have realised that chaos is only amenable to a certain amount of rehabilitation, and started concentrating on those garish, oddly beautiful photographs instead.
The result was the disorder we call fame - a spot in Saatchi's 1997 'Sensation' exhibition, awards for 'Ray's a Laugh', his book on his family, a place on the 2001 Turner shortlist, acclaim and adulation. Billingham has not chosen to point his camera at this kind of chaos; maybe it's too big for his viewfinder. But there's a certain logic in the move from photographing the inmates of that council flat to picturing the inhabitants of zoos, as he has done most recently (in film and video).
There are a couple of those shots in this exhibition, and they ought to sit oddly with the images of family life that surround them, but they don't, even though this new ensemble of Billinghams is rather less feral than the old one. The colours are quieter, the shock value muted, but the fact that Billingham appears to have constructed a family far removed from the one he grew up in - middle-class home with polished floorboards and appliances, neat attentive wife, baby son with no more to cry about than most infants - doesn't lessen the unease. With the animal shots - the polar bear, the jaguar - we sense the cage even, or especially, when we can't see it: it's hard to escape the conclusion that Billingham, the son of a man who dislikes leaving the house, is so aware of the restrictions on urban humanity that they seep into every family composition, however ostensibly calm.
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Creative Tourist, Animal magic, Richard Billingham Q&A. 24/6/10
Richard Billingham didn’t have to journey far to find fame – he found it at home when he trained his camera on his mum and dad in their council flat in Cradley Heath, leading to a series of startling photographs that secured him a place in the now-legendary Royal Academy show, Sensation. Billingham went on to spend the better part of the last decade travelling the globe in search of subjects. From the lush landscape of Ethiopia to a dirt road in Pakistan, he has photographed the world with the same haunting yet revelatory gaze that first shot him to fame in 1997 and ultimately won him the Citibank Photography Prize that same year. As a new exhibition of his work opens at Castlefield Gallery (a group show that also includes Mark Wallinger), Jessica Lack talks to the artist about John Berger, zoos and the animal eye
JL: The group exhibition at Castlefield will be showing a video of a leopard from a series of photographs and videos you made of animals in captivity. What was the inspiration behind the series?
RB: My mother taking me to Dudley Zoo as a child. She would take me about once a year and some of the pictures of me as a kid are taken in Dudley Zoo.
JL: You have said the work was informed by John Berger’s essay Why Look At Animals? What was it that interested you in it?
RB: I came across Berger’s essay browsing in the library when a student. I liked the way he talked about the ‘eye of the animal’. Well, that’s how I remember it. I found it very moving somehow. It also convinced me I would like to make some work with zoo animals one day.
JL: You journeyed all over the world for two years to make the series. What was the most unusual aspect of your travels?
RB: Talking to some of the zoo visitors. It slowly dawned on me that there are certain people that will visit their local zoo every day as they have a particular relationship to a certain animal. By talking to these people, I found out useful information about zoo animals that helped me make the work. For instance, I was in Copenhagen zoo trying to film a tapir. It had adopted a strange head bobbing movement that it repeated by the glass of the pen (where you view it). But each time I filmed the animal the footage did not seem intense enough for me to do anything with.
That night I went to a pub, still thinking about how, when I returned the next morning, I could film it better. Later, a woman started talking to me. She seemed a bit mad. She asked me what I’d been doing that day so I said I’d been ‘…filming the tapir in the zoo’. That should get rid of her, I thought. But then she smiled and said that for the past five years she had been drawing the same tapir each day! She told me everything she knew about it, in particular that its eye was quite special in that just before it would blink a separate eyelid, underneath the eyelid you can see, would blink. It’s hard to explain but you can see it sort of blinks twice in the video.
With this new knowledge, I decided the next day to concentrate filming on the animal’s eye only and this time the footage looked much better, less contrived. After that I always talked to zoo visitors that were regulars as they had all sorts of interesting facts and local knowledge about their favourite animals.
JL: Many of the images appear theatrical – the design of the enclosure, the lighting and the repetitive actions of the animals give it a sense of unreality, as if the animals are detached somehow from time and space.
RB: I guess many of the images do have a theatrical element. I’m not sure what you mean about the animals being ‘detached from time and space’. When I was filming and photographing I was often looking for ways to visually integrate them with their spaces. I wanted the animals to have dignity and not look marginalised or pathetic. In most of the photos and videos the animals do not hang around the margins of the enclosures but are often in the middle of them. They are also often centrally ‘placed’ within the photos or videos. I think they are visually quite entrenched in their enclosures.