‘Ray’s a Laugh’ continues to court controversy

All images by Richard Billingham, from Ray’s a Laugh, 2024. Courtesy the artist and Mack

A new version of Richard Billingham’s pioneering family project raises the same old questions around access, class and sensation

For those who are new to the story of Richard Billingham’s rise to fame through the first printing of  Ray’s a Laugh, it is worthwhile revisiting the context of publication and the frenzy around the emergence of this work in 1996/7 – beyond just the story of a ‘proletariat-sevant’s’ remarkable rise from poverty and his shelf-stacking job at Kwik Save.

Though often pitched as an honest document of working class life under Thatcherism, it is more interesting to consider Ray’s a Laugh through the lens of contemporary social change and reaction to its release. The images, made by Billingham to work from as a painting student at Sunderland University, came into the public consciousness just before the landslide victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997. Following the election, the UK’s cultural output became pitched centre stage after years of decline under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The term ‘Cool Britannia’ was pushed as the umbrella term for this new cultural optimism, and musicians, artists, writers and celebrities were invited to 10 Downing Street to get drunk on champagne.

“Billingham’s photos slipped neatly into a post-Thatcher feeling of euphoric victory for many, which, quite counterintuitively, seemed to make the culture surrounding art and photography more brash and more viciously ‘honest’”

Ray’s a Laugh also coincided with, and became part of, the peak of the Young British Artist phenomena, where butchered animals, contentious paintings of child murderers, genitalia represented by food and, of course, enlarged snapshots of a dysfunctional family struggling to survive in a Midlands council flat were displayed together in Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition at The Royal Academy. As a point of cultural change in the UK, it was arguably as powerful and impactful as the Punk movement of the 1970s.

Billingham’s photographs also slipped neatly into a post-Thatcher feeling of euphoric victory for many, which, quite counterintuitively, seemed to make the culture surrounding art and photography more brash and more viciously ‘honest’. When Ray’s a Laugh was brought to public attention through  broadsheet Sunday newspaper supplements, articles and magazine features, the reaction was less concentrated on the economic punishment that the Billingham’s and countless other families had suffered through Thatcherism, and more around the choices Liz had made in decorating her flat, the physical appearance of the subjects, the alcoholism of the fall guy, Ray.

The entire case for validating the project’s release – initiated by Billingham, his Sunderland tutor Julian Germain, The Telegraph Magazine picture editor Michael Collins (who edited Ray’s a Laugh), and Val Williams, who included early black-and-white images in a 1994 Barbican exhibition Who’s Looking at the Family? – seemed to pivot around the fact that Billingham was photographing his own environment, so, it was imagined, he must be in control of any message he was trying to convey. Billingham was, however, living away at university and making visits to his family home when he made the bulk of the photographs included in the first edition. He was young, inexperienced and must have been so impacted by his childhood circumstances that any means of escape would seem justified. The interest from older, professional people – especially as Billingham was later introduced to the commercial art world – must also have been an influence on his decision-making. And who could blame anyone from such a difficult background for clinging to any vehicle travelling in the opposite direction?

For those of us from similarly economically and culturally deprived backgrounds, Ray’s a Laugh was  transparently partial and even fictionalised. Most who had suffered the callous Conservative cuts to public funding and benefits in the 1980s did not have cameras, money for film or indeed the motivation or confidence required to go to art college. If they had made the effort and investment towards recording their lives on camera, most would surely look a lot more mundane, grinding and frightened than this.

The first publication of Ray’s a Laugh was a colour-saturated comedy – a cat hurled at a head, the midpoint of a falling, drunken body; a vividly patterned dress stretched over a large frame; bad teeth and kitsch decor. It is inevitable I suppose, when passing through the filters of Billingham’s need for raw material, his instant camera, the editors’ and the original publisher’s preoccupations, personal critical frameworks and social backgrounds, that any sense of reality would be lost to the sensational. Poverty, however, is really not that entertaining.

I remain as dumbfounded by the project as I was in 1996 and again in 2007, when I tetchily interviewed Billingham as editor of Photoworks magazine, and subsequently received a letter from Micheal Collins, who described the account of Ray’s a Laugh’s publication history as “highly distorted” and conveyed his dismay at several design decisions made by Scalo, though he also conceded that he had made the mistake of “using [Billingham’s] work as an extension of my own” during the editing process.

“I am confused again as to Billingham’s reasoning behind not bringing the richness of these texts into the book”

My original interview with Billingham and Collins’ reply are both reproduced in the accompanying Ray’s a Laugh: A Reader, alongside more assured voices considering Ray’s a Laugh’s impact since its ‘discovery’. These essays, edited by Liz Jobey, pick up on a lot of the confusion, harsh language, questions of authenticity, agency and authorship which Billingham’s book provoked, filling in some of the void that the viewer was left to fill by the original book. The 1996 volume notably only has a short paragraph of overview from Billingham on the back cover, alongside an effusive quote from Robert Frank, which, coincidentally, uses the word ‘cool’ to describe the work.

The newly revised and sequenced version of Ray’s a Laugh adds weight to the work both figuratively and physically, massive as it is – and some sense of care and respect for the subjects that the first publication was missing. It also reasserts the work as a project of multiple images rather than the individual ‘pieces’ they became in order to monetise the images for collectors. I am though confused again as to Billingham’s reasoning behind not bringing the richness of these texts into the book – both for the convenience of context when reading of the images and, without meaning to sound churlish, the affordability of  buying both publications for the very same group of financially beaten people the work is often seen to represent. Bought together, they will dent most budgets, and will remain out of reach to many. But books need to be paid for and publishers’ losses minimised. This is often a problem with bringing images of the marginalised to the high-cost art market. It’s a visually arresting and exotic experience when looking from the outside, and rarely aimed at those it is revealing the lives of.