Richard Billingham’s blisteringly honest photos of his alcoholic dad and his mountainous, tattooed mom—Ray and Liz, as they have come to be intimately known—were the toast of Charles Saatchi’s epochal late-’90s exhibition “Sensation” and drew crowds again this fall at Frieze, which hosted a presentation peering back to the no-longer-Young British Artist’s first solo show.
Since that debut, in London in 1996, Billingham has expanded his subject matter to include caged animals in a zoo and landscapes of familiar environs in England and foreign climes such as Ethiopia and Pakistan. More recently, he turned his camera on his own young family with a partner and three children—a far cry from the dysfunctional scenes of an upbringing that propelled him to fame.
Now, the artist’s latest project has been to extrapolate his early career-making photographs into a new form: a three-part feature film about his childhood titled Ray & Liz. Co-funded by the British Film Institute and Ffilm Cymru Wales, the work-in-progress—with a first part finished in 2015 and the rest due to be completed next year—is a meditation on themes of loneliness, negligence, and bullying, with actors employed to reconstruct traumatic episodes from the past.
One of Billingham’s favorite early photographs from his fertile beginning shows his father Ray in bed under the covers, a headboard forming a halo against patterned wallpaper. “It’s quite calm, like he’s in a landscape. He is a landscape,” said the artist, who considers himself a landscape photographer despite having made his name taking pictures of people. In interviews around the time of Frieze, he expressed fondness too for a photo of a toothless, spectral Ray cackling in the mirror—a scene he described as “terrifying” for the way it channels existential fears of solitude and growing old.
Those photos and others of their kind were taken in 1990, when Billingham was sharing an apartment near Birmingham with his dad after his mom had moved out and his younger brother, Jason, had been sent to a foster family. Billingham asked the social worker to take him as well, but they said he was too old. He started taking photos at age 19, as research for paintings about the tragedy of his father’s situation as a lonely, unemployed man trapped in a room, living for alcohol and little else. He never imagined they would form a connected body of artwork.
“I was very interested in the paintings of van Gogh and Degas, when they paint from life and try and get down something quick,” Billingham said. “I painted on cardboard and old bed sheets, things that I could find to get these direct observation paintings of Ray in his room.”
Photos of his drink-addled father provided the starting point for a 33-minute, single-screen video Ray (2015), which has been shown at art spaces in Swansea, Wales—where Billingham now lives—as well as Rio de Janeiro and Copenhagen. While writing, the artist was surprised by how easily the screenplay for Ray came to him, and he followed it up with two more interlinking scripts and a plan for fusing all three parts into a feature film.
Ray focuses on that bleak period when Billingham’s father drank himself into oblivion daily, aided by a long-haired neighbor named Psychedelic Sid who supplied him with huge soda bottles filled with toxic home-brew. “He didn’t leave the room except to go to the toilet, because he was upset, I guess, about my mother leaving,” Billingham said. “He’d wake up, he’d drink, he’d look out the window, he’d go to sleep.”
Although the action focuses on one room, Ray is captivating as a brutal yet tender portrait of degradation that brings to life characters known well from Billingham’s photos. We’ve seen Ray before in the midst of hurling a cat across the room and Liz poised to punch her husband—but they were frozen moments. The film extends the visual grammar of the photos as well as Billingham’s 1998 documentary about his family, Fishtank. A sort of narrative coalesces around such details as a fat, cockroach-like fly that buzzes across various surfaces, bottles that get emptied and replenished, a key that goes untouched on a table, and cigarettes mounting in an ashtray. The camera homes in repeatedly on large tumblers of booze that Ray pours and his throat as they are downed with a glug-glug and a satisfied smack of his lips.
The monotony of Ray’s existence is marked by changing light and noise through the window. Ray spends a lot of time staring at a world beyond, like a prisoner in a cell. In one revealing moment, he spots Liz below and excitedly calls down to her—but she’s off to the doctor, no time for him.
Dramatic climax comes on the occasion of Liz’s weekly visit on dole day, when welfare would pay out and she could borrow money from Ray for cigarettes. “Pissed again? You drunken fucking bastard,” says Liz, formidable in an electric blue coat and a red-painted mouth. Ray pits Liz and his booze supplier Sid against each other as they vie for control of him. “As long as Sid pays my bills and brings me that stuff,” he says, “I’m happy as a pig in shit.”
Somehow through all this tumult, Billingham managed to get himself onto a pre-degree art course and then to university, all while stacking shelves at a supermarket to pay his way. In his final year at school he plucked up courage to show his tutor his family photos, which would become his ticket to a different life. The pictures were published in a book, Ray’s a Laugh (1996), and shown in galleries in Europe, America, and Australia. Billingham became an art-world sensation, winning the Deutsche Böerse Prize in 1997 and earning a Turner Prize nomination in 2001.
His family’s reaction? Largely indifference, the artist said. “They were more bothered about what we’re going to have for tea or if the cat’s got fleas,” he recalled. “That was their world. It’s not like in normal families where you sit down and have conversations.”
Billingham can be disconcertingly detached when talking about his family, but he was frank about what drew him back to the subject. “That early black-and-white work was never really resolved,” he said. “It was a strong motif for me, seeing my dad in bed most of the time in a room, a bit like an animal in one of those pens. Now [that] I’m older, I can go back to that theme and nail it.”
Casting is currently underway for the other two parts of the film, based on more pivotal moments from the past. One deals with a time in the late ’80s when Billingham’s brother went missing for three days, at the age of 10, and was found in a garden shed after police were called. The remaining segment relates to an ugly incident earlier when their vulnerable uncle Lol was made drunk by an unscrupulous relative while he babysat and received a beating from Liz when she returned home. (An excerpt from the completed first part of the film can be seen here.)
Billingham doesn’t blame his parents for their foibles. They appear as childlike innocents in his work, though his choice of unflattering episodes is clearly not accidental. One suspects he is still trying to make sense of a time when extraordinary emotional maturity was demanded of him at a young age.
And what became of Ray and Liz? Billingham moved them into a small house in 2000, where they lived until Ray had a stroke and went to a home. Liz died of a blood clot a couple of years later, at the age of 56. Ray died the following year, at 74.
Billingham’s parents still haunt his imagination, as does the neighborhood where they all lived. The remaining two parts of Ray & Liz will be shot in the same tower block and street that hold so many memories. “I grew up in that area, so I’m fond of it,” Billingham said—“even though some people would think it’s a shithole.”
While some critics have interpreted his work as voyeuristic or sensational in its depiction of Margaret Thatcher-era poverty, Billingham insists his motivation is to recreate faithfully a world he witnessed. “By going back to the original locations where events took place, I hope to be authentic and represent what life looks like,” he said. “For me, it’s about lived experience.”
Elizabeth Fullerton, a writer based in London, is the author of Artrage! The Story of the BritArt Revolution, published by Thames & Hudson.