Richard Billingham’s story is an oddity in the history of British art. Having been ‘discovered’ as a painting student at Sunderland University, he rapidly went on to become one of the only household names in British photography and to become recognized, nationally and internationally, as an important artist. In 1997 he won the Citibank prize and in 2001 he was shortlisted for the Turner prize.
GM. Gordon MacDonald
RB. Richard Billingham
GM I wonder what first drew you towards art?
RB I learned to read quite late, maybe 7 or 8 years old. Not because I was thick but because my parents didn’t bother pushing me. When I did learn I wanted to read everything and a big world opened up to me. I would read art books in the local library. I probably read most of them – there weren’t many there but I got to know who Picasso was. Constable was the artist who influenced me the most. He was a naturalist and his empirical approach to landscape painting has interested me all this time. Since I was 11 I have been interested in nature. I lived in a tower block and nature, to me, was escapism. I wanted to paint landscapes but it was, like, impossible at the time.
GM How did your parents feel about you taking up art?
RB They were indifferent to it. They probably liked it because, if I was drawing, I was occupied and didn’t need looking after.
GM How did the photographs start?
RB There was just me and my dad living in the flat in a tower block. My mum had left and lived in a neighboring tower block due to his incessant drinking. I saw this scene every day – he would be in his bedroom, lying on the bed or sitting on the edge of the bed, looking in the mirror, drinking. I thought that I would like to make some paintings about this tragic situation and the way he appeared to me in the bedroom. Whenever I made a painting I would make it quickly – each painting at the time took about 15-20 minutes. I did try to teach myself to take longer over a painting but the trouble was that my dad wouldn’t sit still for long enough – he’d want a drink or he would go to the toilet. Later I managed to get a 35mm Zenith camera. I thought I could use the photographs as source material for the paintings. He was held still by the photographs and I could paint from them taking more time.
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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 8, 2007
Commissioned by Photoworks