Ray’s a Laugh: Review

‘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. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Ray says Jason is unruly.  Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.’ Richard Billingham

When I first found the video that I have inserted above I couldn’t get ‘The Cure’ out of my head. Over and over I kept hearing ‘boy’s don’t cry,’ and seeing certain images from the series: Ray falling out of his chair completely intoxicated (to which the lyrics chime ‘I try to laugh about it) and Ray and Liz hugging in a moment of affection (during which Robert Smith sings ‘hiding the tears in my eyes.’) Just like a song being stuck in your head, these photographs stayed with me. The depressing poignancy of the collection would swallow me whole, then spit me back out in bizarre moments of hilarity such as the cat jumping mid air and Liz’s wide toothy grin whilst holding the newborn kitten. Swept into the Psychosis of Billingham’s reality it is truly hard to escape.


Ray’s a Laugh’ is a number of things. It’s a social documentary of alcoholism and poverty. It’s a collection of exposed, intimate snapshots that could be strung together in a family album. It’s an outlet for giving sense to the nonsensical chaos of a hard childhood. Richard Billingham, the man behind this series has expressed how this depiction of his family happened by chance – his original purpose for capturing them was as aids to paintings he had hoped to create. The narrative of life in this council flat in the Midlands unintentionally has become one of his most recognised pieces of work and casts Ray and Elizabeth as celebrities in their own right. ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ was published as a photo book in 2000, once again pertaining to the idea of this is as a family album.

Expectation versus reality comes into play in Billingham’s images leaving a sickly unease in the eye of the onlooker, like a bad taste that lingers just long enough to impress some notion of familiarity. The expectation is one of comfort, the domestic setting mundane and ordinary with the form used furthering the fluency of the everyday within the photographs, Billingham himself noting how he ‘just used the cheapest film and took them to be processed at the cheapest place,’[1] that place being the local chemist. These images not only deconstruct the stereotypical family portrait but fundamentally challenge the accepted presentation of suburban life, exposing the façade of happy families and revealing a dark truth that lies beneath. Unusual in every sense this series depicts the reality of a dysfunctional family and their domestic environment, each photograph laced with issues of alcoholism, violence and unemployment.


Therefore, this likens Billingham to social photographers who document the conditions of human life in order to reveal the need for reform and progression such as Lewis W. Hine. Recording ‘social injustice’ amongst the working class stands forefront within the work of Hine, however, the real link with Billingham is their shared desire to show ‘individual human beings surviving with dignity in intolerable conditions.’[2] Whilst Hine conveys the triumph of steel workers in their comradery sat side by side eating lunch, the survivor within ‘Ray’s a laugh’ is Billingham himself. There is an awareness of the distance and separation of the photographer in even the most intimate of photographs such as Ray lying in bed asleep or clinging to the toilet post alcoholic-purge. This subversion of the typical nostalgic attachment often associated with domestic photography results in Billingham’s presentation of himself as an outsider looking in. George Eliot expresses the need for this capturing of everyday realities stating ‘let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.’[3] Sometimes invasive and sometimes comical, his series combines elements of social and domestic photography in order to depict humanity in its rawest form, and he does it so brilliantly.

Vibrancy of colour is perhaps one of the most striking fundamentals of these photographs, the vivid contrast highlighting the detail of Liz’s tattoos and Ray’s tobacco stained fingers and impressing a ‘realness’ in the moments that the unconventional love of the two is depicted. The injection of life that colour gives to these photos emphasises the chaos and clutter of their family home, overcrowded with painted porcelain ornaments and trinkets, peas and carrots dropped on the kitchen floor starkly green and orange against the muddy white of the tiles. Arguably, it is these seemingly insignificant details that engage the observer. The banality focussed upon by Billingham echoes that of Martin Parr, together concentrating upon the outwardly average and in turn revealing them to be universally captivating. Both photographers use setting as a constant, as the repetition of scenic backdrops in Parr’s beach shots and the pattern of Billingham’s living room wallpaper simultaneously play with the idea of ‘the expected’ the punctum in each photograph destabilizing the ‘everyday.’ Here we see a perfect example of the exterior versus the interior and how use of both evokes starkly differing reactions. Billingham’s invasion of the domestic sphere installs unease and a loose suggestion of voyeurism – seeing what should not be seen- in comparison with Parr’s use of public space.


The theme of the ‘ordinary day’ is one that rings true in every one of Billingham’s images, capturing a feeling of the British working class in a way that continues to be echoed to the present day. There is something completely humbling about the collection, the raw veracity sobering in a complete ironic way. As we view the world of Ray with intense clarity and actuality he is lost in the chaos, despondent to his surroundings and family. Isolating Ray and Liz as individual characters presents a difficulty as they almost become caricatures of their environment. The similarities between Ray, Jim Royle and Frank Gallagher are deafening, all three are despondent individuals who are identifiable as a member of ‘the underclass,’ stagnant in social mobility yet brilliant products of black humour. There is undoubtedly a presence of this melancholic humour in Billingham’s photographs, with the reason that this works so well being the undeniable truth that in each personality the everyday person can recognise a characteristic within themselves or somebody that they know. Similarities can be drawn in particular with the Royle family due to once again the consistent and single use of an insular environment, the home as the theatre in which humanity is truly revealed and explored.

Interestingly, Billingham later went on to shoot a short film that continued to explore the themes within his photographs, the subject once again his family. Fishtank was broadcast on BBC 2 in 1998 and gave a voice to Ray and Liz that had already transpired consistently within ‘Ray’s a Laugh,’ Ray announcing in one frame ‘down the hatch and bollocks to them all,’ to which Liz responds in another room, ‘if you’re drinking Ray I’ll clobber you.’ Billingham went on to comment upon how his most successful footage came when he was ‘just looking and not really thinking, the camcorder more an extension of the eye.’[4] This, I feel, is consistent with the success of his photographs; the main reason that they are so absorbing is due to the nature of the Billingham as a silent onlooker much like us, unnoticed and as a result capturing raw footage of the happenings within the four walls of a home.

Here’s a clip of Jim Royle in all his brilliance, hopefully this will help you understand the themes from which I’m drawing similarities.


[2]Social Photography, Lewis W. Hine, pg.111

[3]Social Photography, Lewis Hine, pg.113


If you are interested in having a look Billingham’s Fish Tank, this website is pretty useful: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/1998/fishtank


Lewis W. Hine, Social Photography (accessible via readings folder on moodle)

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (London: Vintage Books, 2000)

Susan Sontag, On Photography, (Penguin, 1979)


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