Richard Billingham talk- Manchester art gallery

Redeye had organised the event in conjunction with Manchester Art gallery’s late night Thursdays. The talk was from Richard Billingham who had some work exhibited in their current photographic exhibition: – ‘Focal Points: Art and Photography’. The talk was a sell out as we were all crammed into a square concrete room with industrial steel lighting and a large projector, although luckily once the lights went down, the focus was quite rightly on the screen. I’ve been to photography talks before and struggled at times with how stilted Billingham was, as a lecturer (and professor it was announced) I expected it to be a bit more like a lecture, but perhaps we were an audience outside of his comfort zone.

Starting with his early life, looking to study painting at university, we moved onto his work photographing his father Ray, initially to use as a reference for paintings, to moving more into photography, extending his subjects to his mum Liz, and younger brother. While this all sounds normal, in reality he was capturing the dysfunctional family of an alcoholic father, dominant mother, family splits and council housing. Photography moved onto film, still with the same subjects and at one point we saw a super 8 grainy video that he had slowed down of his father getting up from a chair and then falling back into it. As an outside viewing this, it was quite powerful to see and was voyeuristic as we saw this frustration and frailty of Ray. At no point were these works celebrations of his family, while his intimacy allowed him a freedom and access that would take years to build up, it’s as if these people were not related to him. While Billingham discussed the emotional attachment he has in many of his images, such as the series of the area where he grew up, I feel that there is a sense of disgust present not sympathy with these people. Personally I was interested in some of the detail, the camera’s he’d used, the thinking behind it- using the cheapest camera he could find as he wasn’t thinking in social documentary terms, looking at composition as if he was a painter. One image with a black headboard to the left, he felt needed balancing so put his thumb partly over the lens on the right hand side to balance this. It looks like a mistake if you’d viewed it as a straight image without the narrative.

Moving on from the ‘Rays a laugh’ and his home movies series, we went to landscapes both in his local area and across the UK, what kept coming across was that he had an emotional attachment to places and his subjects. His thinking process came across all the time as a painter first and photographer second although the key components are the same, light, composition, subject, balance etc. The final series was of zoos, as a keen animal and zoo photographer myself, I was interested on what these would look like as I strive to show that animals can look natural within their enclosure and these were almost the exact opposite., but he did state how do you make it look like it’s not in National Geographic. Featuring on the enclosure, the animals were almost an aside to their surroundings, and were often featured quite small within the frame. One feature that I found valuable was seeing how his work evolved in its displayed format from the basis degree show to work in galleries- differing depending on the subject and images. For the zoo series, these were displayed life-sized underneath glass as a replication to how you would view animals in enclosures.

We finished on a short video he had done based on ‘Bid TV’ type selling of a tiger painting. I thought it was more a spoof on the top 40 rundown but he saw it more as a countdown of the number of tigers left. This very much seemed the evening of an artist, not a painter, or photographer but of someone who uses different methods to express himself depending on what’s available and what results he gets.


The event was very interesting and certainly worthwhile the attendance, the venue itself was great- being able to walk about the galleries beforehand was really inspiring after a day at work and helped to get my mind prepared. I felt that there could have been more coherency between the images and the narrative from Billingham, whether it was technical or just a glitch, we seemed to jump around a little bit and there wasn’t always a clear thread from one to the other. It was great meeting up with other OCA students although I did miss a good debate afterwards as my train was in the opposite direction to the others.

What I got from the event

Presentation is very important- something that you learn and improve on over time. Need to consider narrative, editing, sequencing and mounting of the images. Consider the background walls- the colour may need changing to compliment the colours within the image

When you can’t find a way to take a photograph consider using a different type of media such as painting or video- it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s how it does what you want and if it helps to move you to where you want to be

Composition- consider balance, form and imagery

Try to develop a relationship with the subject, and this might take time

Further research

3200 colour Konica film as this was a preference of his

Julian Jermaine

Michael Collins

Mamiya 7

Rays a laugh


3 responses to “Richard Billingham talk- Manchester art gallery

  1. Interesting write up Sarah, far more interesting than Billingham himself. I was there on the night and came away totally uninspired. After ‘Ray’s a Laugh’, which I think is a magnificent collection of photography, I thought his work was shit! And how dull is Billingham?

    Any road!

    • Cheers Michael, I have to admit that Billingham wasn’t as dynamic as I’d expected him to be but it was a good event anyway- always worthwhile getting a view direct from the photographer, whether we are fans of the work or not

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