One photograph at a time: ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ by Richard Billingham

A reissue of Billingham’s photographs depicting his poverty-stricken family life proves to be as controversial today as it was in the 1990s

May 15, 2024
From “Ray’s a Laugh” by Richard Billingham (MACK, 2024). Courtesy of the artist and MACK
From “Ray’s a Laugh” by Richard Billingham (MACK, 2024). Courtesy of the artist and MACK

There is something regal about this image of artist and photographer Richard Billingham’s mother Liz reclining on the sofa in her Black Country flat. She is a powerful presence across Ray’s a Laugh, a collection of Billingham’s photographs, first published in 1996 and recently reissued by MACK. Billingham’s subject here is his own family life, during a time when Billingham’s alcoholic father, Ray, was made redundant from his job as a machinist in a factory. The images are shockingly, sometimes uncomfortably intimate—here we see a woman relaxing in her own home, a place of privacy, where we are a voyeuristic intruder on the domestic details of her life. The whole image seems to sag with the abundance of time that comes with the particular form of poverty that Billingham’s family faced: long-term unemployment due to lack of economic opportunity in the area.

I have complicated feelings as I look at this photograph of Liz, and even more complicated feelings writing about it. Sometimes dubbed “squalid realism”, Billingham’s work has in one sense the quality of poverty porn: it is invasive and exposing of its subjects. We are invited to spectate on a dreary malaise punctuated by flashes of intensity that characterises their life in a tower block in Cradley Heath. It also cuts to questions about family, about whether an artist owes any loyalty to them, to their privacy and wellbeing, even when that family has let them down so painfully—as Billingham’s did, what with Liz’s occasional violence towards him and Ray’s emotional absence. And there is also the tension between the poverty depicted in the images and the staggering privilege of the art world. Billingham, who worked in relative obscurity prior to the publication of Ray’s a Laugh, had by 2001 been nominated for the Turner Prize. The likely rarefied audience he has since found for his art is world’s away from the 1990s Black Country community he photographed and experienced firsthand: this image of Liz was acquired by Charles Saatchi in 1996. And what about the fact that this new edition is priced at an eye-watering £60? As Gordon Macdonald writes in the British Journal of Photography, “This is often a problem with bringing images of the marginalised to the high-cost art market. It’s a visually arresting and exotic experience when looking from the outside, and rarely aimed at those it is revealing the lives of.”

Then there are my feelings about Liz. I can’t help but like her in this image. I am comforted by her floral dress, her slippers, the slim lines of her arched eyebrows—her lack of pretension. I can’t help but think that not only Ray, but Liz, is also, on her good days, a laugh, in the warm way that is characteristic of people in the place where I also grew up, four miles away from Billingham in Cradley’s much more middle-class neighbour, Stourbridge. And yet, and yet! In other images Liz can be a terrifying presence, and we know from Billingham that she could be abusive and harsh.

But it is these ambiguities that makes this collection of photographs so powerful, and I realise that it is not only Billingham’s right to recount his experience of growing up in poverty—it is also an act of love. As well as capturing Liz and Ray’s sometimes claustrophobic and difficult experiences, he also captures their joys and idiosyncrasies. As he writes: “My parents and brother are very happy with the book. Neither I nor they are shocked by its directness because we’re all well-enough acquainted with having to live with poverty. After all, there are millions of other people in Britain living similarly.”

Maybe the reason I was drawn to this image was because, in it, Liz’s life looks neither squalid nor shocking. Instead she brims with the confidence of a woman at the heart of her own queendom, however small it may be.

Ray’s a Laugh, reissued by MACK, is out now