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Untitled, 1995

Untitled, 1995

Untitled, 1995

Untitled, 1994

richard billingham 

at luhring augustine

by Carlo McCormick

No one likes to look at the truth, not simply because it can be ugly or remind us of things we'd rather ignore, but because the truth ultimately can do no less than reveal everything else as lies. And as subjective as any truth may be, every now and then someone like Richard Billingham comes along who gets it just right, with such undeniable honesty and clarity that there can be no denying its greater authority. Billingham tells the truth about things most people assume they have a pretty good idea about already. He does it with a familiarity and directness that renders all our received ideas on these matters as utter fictions.

In the richly enhanced colors, seemingly casual focus and domestic intimacy of his painterly photographs, Billingham tells the almost tender details of family dysfunction, speaking volumes on the lost and neglected reality of alcoholism, poverty, pain, violence and even love. Richard knows so well of what he speaks because he's lived it. That man drinking himself into a daily stupor, that obese lady he fights with and makes up with or simply ignores, that kid whose confusion and retreat echoes the claustrophobic disarray all around them, and even that eccentric character who romps about in clownish costume (in a series of photos yet to be publicly exhibited); they are, of course, his family.

What's probably so troubling to many about this dead-end Council Housing world of disenfranchised British working-class boredom and banality isn't its squalor as much as the way that squalor isn't even an issue here. These photographs are not socially motivated, and if they can't help but push all those buttons in our collective conscience, their residing power and transcendent beauty is that they are so much more personal than that. This is not the problematic voyeurism and inherent condescension that comes with the role of photojournalist-as-social-anthropologist. You see, for Richard this is all quite normal and everyday.

Richard Billingham, Feb. 15-Mar. 22, 1997, at Luhring Augustine, 130 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012.

CARLO McCORMICK is associate editor of Paper.