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by Richard Billingham
Scalo Press, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 29th 2002

Ray's a Laugh

It might seem a simple matter for someone to take photographs of his family, capturing them at emotionally revealing moments.  But I imagine it is actually very difficult, which may explain why Richard Billingham’s collection of photographs is so unusual and extraordinary.  The only text explaining these pictures is on the back cover; here’s what it says:

This book is about my close family.  My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.  My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot.  She likes pets and things that are decorative.  They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.  My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father.  Ray says Jason is unruly.  Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.

One of the first photographs shows a housing estate, presumably in the area where Billingham’s family lives.  It’s a typical sort of place, surprising free of trash or litter.  Some houses have laundry hanging up on washing lines in the back gardens.  These pictures shows on what goes on inside at least one of those homes. 

Billingham’s father Ray has gray hair, mostly uncombed, and tattoos; he is shorter and thinner than his son Jason.  Liz is much bigger than Ray and also has impressive tattoos.  When they fight, she gets the better of him.  Several pictures show him with a bloody nose, and her with a clenched fist.  But there is also peace between them; we see them hugging, and even more touching, her offering him a handkerchief to clean the injuries he just gave him. 

The family also has pets: dogs, cats, and at least one rodent.  Many of the photographs show the pets living in the chaos of the family, or fighting with each other.  The most striking picture shows a cat flying through the air after being thrown by Ray; it looks calm and poised to land, but Ray looks crazy.  There are a couple of pictures of wildlife: a duck on water and a bird in a tree.  It’s not clear why there are included, but maybe Billingham took them when he was taking a walk to get away from the family madness.

One of the more shocking things that these pictures show is the squalor the family lives in.  In the kitchen, the walls are splattered with brown stains.  Another picture shows fresh purplish liquid running down a wall. My guess is that it’s either red wine or blood.  Other older stains cover the same wall.  But other parts of the house are kept clean: Liz takes pride in collecting colorful porcelain figures and they look as if they are dusted regularly. 

Odd contrasts run throughout the book.  Ray is often captured at his worst, half conscious.  In one astounding photograph, he is falling down, maybe off the chair he was sitting on.  But in other pictures, he is calm and even cheerful.  This mixture is most conspicuously joined in the cover image, with Ray’s head on a pillow, slightly out of focus. His eyes are almost closed, and his face is in a half-grin/half-grimace.  Ray’s a Laugh is a great book.  

A note about this paperback edition, which I bought for myself from Amazon.com: after only a week of owning the book, the cover started becoming unglued from the book.  Readers might want to find a used hardcover version of the book rather than get the paperback, because this is certainly a book to open completely, in order to be able to see the pictures spread over two pages clearly, and this means the spine will get some hard use. 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.