Research point: Family

The course notes point us at three examples of photographers who have turned their cameras on their own family: Richard Billingham, Larry Sultan and Tina Barney. I’m fascinated by a photographer’s original intent – was it deliberately created as art, or retrospectively treated as such? (I expound my musings on this subject here).

Richard Billingham

It’s not too long since I wrote about Ray’s A Laugh as part of Contemporary Awareness 1 research, so I won’t repeat it all here, I’ll just add a couple of new thoughts.

In reading the course notes I discovered that his original intention was to shoot photos as reference material for paintings, before deciding to stick with the photographs. In a sense this gives it more credence as ‘intentional art’ than I’d previously thought (in my mind it was a personal documentary project that somehow made it onto gallery walls). I’d love to have seen the painting series based on the photographs though; it’s almost a shame that he dropped that idea.

From Ray’s a Laugh – Richard Billingham

At first I was bemused that the course notes pointed me to a clip where Billingham doesn’t specifically talk about Ray’s A Laugh and is illustrated mostly with photographs from other projects, but on rewatching it dawned on me that family remains an inspiration for his work even when it is not the direct subject. The Zoo project (2005) could be read as a metaphor for his chaotic childhood, and he talks about planning a short film (not made, as far as I can tell) based in prison, again using his childhood experience as the underlying inspiration. Interestingly he is working on a film project at the moment, and it’s essentially a fictionalised version of Ray’s A Laugh – so he keeps come back to the family.

Larry Sultan and Tina Barney

I’ve bracketed these two together as to me they have more similarities than differences, certainly in terms of subject matter and to a degree in aesthetic. I can’t get as enthused about upper-class Americans as I can about lower-class Brits! Both Sultan and Barney make very good photographs but I find it hard to connect to the subject matter.

Jill and Polly in the Bathroom – Tina Barney, 1987

Of the two I found Barney more interesting as there was more evidence of a thought process and an intention. Sultan’s images are sometimes candid, sometimes posed, but Barney’s are more specifically constructed. She has directed her family as actors in scenes of her choosing. I think Sultan is taking pictures and then ‘seeing what they might be saying’ – Barney is making statements about family relationships, quite deliberately.

The notes from a 2006 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition discussed Jill and Polly in the Bathroom as a typical Barney photo and quoted Barney:

“When people say that there is a distance, a stiffness in my photographs, that the people look like they do not connect, my answer is, that this is the best we can do. This inability to show physical affection is in our heritage.” (Barney 2006)


An interesting little diversion into family as direct or indirect subject matter – but most likely not one that I plan to take inspiration from.


Richard Billingam interview (accessed 17/03/2016)

Larry Sultan (accessed 17/03/2016)

Tina Barney at Art Institute of Chicago (accessed 17/03/2016)


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