Richard Billingham

all images copyright Richard Billingham 

"You have a responsibility to your subjects yes, but you have a greater one to your art. Look after your art and the subject will be protected." 
The CCP lecture series in Melbourne started with a blockbuster last night- English photographer Richard Billingham gave an hour long talk about his work. He spoke of the beginnings of his celebrated series " Rays a laugh" and moved on to talk about the landscape and video work that has followed. Billingham is an artist who has sucessfully evolved - from painting to photography to video. I have always found his early work on his family to be his strongest, but do so with a healthy dose of personal bias. The work is intense and uncomfortable with palpable vulnerability. It was interesting to hear him talk of the innocence of his early work- Billingham seems like he wanted to badly to get away from his unhappy family life but was also so drawn to it. He chose to photograph his Dad initially as he was an available, willing model and it sounded like Billingham only gained an insight into how incredible his work ( and life) was at the time when teachers from his art college saw the work. It says something about that need to create that some artists have, finding that kind of inspiration in your life no matter your circumstances.
I didn't get to ask a question at the designated time, but approached him afterwards and asked how feels about the work now that so many people have viewed, dissected and analysed what are ultimately photos of his family. He said he is still glad he took them no matter what and that he just as easily could have taken them and left them in a shoebox under a bed somewhere. But by sharing them he hopes people have gained something from them.
I guess it must be hard having to justify the work so often, but it's a question I find myself asking about my own photos of my Dad. The last time I showed them in public was at my internship in NYC on my teacher's request and afterwards I broke down sobbing when probed about my Dad. I can't imagine what it has been like for Billingham having his family life displayed all around the world, but cannot deny that, no matter the cost the more personal the work, the stronger it is.

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