Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Richard Billingham : The Zoo

Today I was lucky enough to have the chance to speak to the (once Cradley Heath based) artist Richard Billingham of Saatchi & Young British Artist (YBA) fame. He gave a talk about his work to a selection of staff & students at Halesowen College, where he used to go. During the talk he talked about his early paintings, and the photos of his family, urban exteriors and zoo photos and videos.

It seems painting was his initial interest in art, and as a small child he would sit and draw in his parents flat. When he managed to get a camera from a club book (which he never paid for) he used it to start taking photos of his father, as studies for his painting. As he continued, his interest in photography and people's reception to it developed, and he was lucky enough to get a deal through a visiting lecturer at Sunderland Uni where he was studying with a publisher, which (i think) became 'Ray's a laugh'.

I asked him what his parents thought of his photos, he said they were pretty much indifferent. He'd drawn all his life and then started to take photos of them. One of the few that that they did not like was this one of them eating;

Many of his lesser known, early photos contained staged actions (which was news to my ears). Above the flat his parents lived in, lived a guy he called 'the hippy' who would bring his alchoholic and jobless father Ray, litres of superstrength homebrew. While there, 'the hippy' had a tendency to pose for the camera, resulting in some bizarre pictures such as one with him threatening Ray with a knife and a hammer, in a comic and slightly disturbed image, while Ray stands there looking rather forlorn. I asked if he felt part of the space or detached while he took the photos. He seemed to say he felt part of it, but maintained some detachment, presumably for artistic insight.

Billingham's younger brother had been taken into care and Billingham contacted him "to see what he looked like". Billingham also mentioned he was in a way jealous of his brother and "wished I'd been taken into care too". His brother eventually moved back home after having his A level application form was ripped up by his foster parents in case he acheived higher than their children. Billingham seemed to value education and stated that it had got him where he was now. His brother seemed to enjoy playing up for the camera, resulting in the following recognisable image of Ray having a cat thrown at him:

Billingham's photo's of Zoo's were interesting. Although I found his videos much more so. He said he now used video more frequently than still photography, and his videos of animals showed very sad, and unhappy repetetive behaviour by them.

I couldn't help (at the danger of sounding possibly a tad aloof and cruel) but feel a strong link between his Zoo photography and his early family shots. The Zoo images showed saddened animals in cages or run down pens, unable to escape and trapped in a cycle of unhappy repetetive behaviour. The figure trapped in an environment was similar and the mood also; Billingham as the photographer - the sympathetic but objective onlooker.

He said he liked the movement in a video of a squirrel bounding endlessly left to right in a cage - he was interested in the image, but was disinterested in 'the zoo debate'. He seemed to see video almost as a moving painting, and distinguished art-video from TV or cinema, most notably by a confinement of narrative and lack of editing.

On BBC TV I saw his film 'Fishtank' and have always been bemused by a long and dizzying scenewith his brother playing with a small battery-powered ferrit & ball toy, dodging endlessly across the floor, but after seeing the zoo videos of phychologically distraught animals, this kind of made sense in a weird way.


  1. hi artist - it would be nice you post the name of your ressources or get the picture and save it on your own server. hot links are not the realy fair. nope? - thx. bhlogiston

  2. Fair enough. I've put you a link under the picture. It was just the best one that came up on a google search

  3. thank you for the information, Billingham sounds like an interesting Character. A very interesting read.