Camera Buffs: How Two New Films See Photographers Richard Billingham and Bill Cunningham Through Their Own Lens

"Ray & Liz" and "The Times of Bill Cunningham" look at two of the greatest 20th century photographers through their own eyes.
ray and liz
"Ray & Liz"

The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.

Photographers Richard Billingham and Bill Cunningham, across decades and continents, made themselves invisible as they captured people with their cameras. They constantly played with distances — and ideas of distancing — and that allowed their photos to develop into historical documents of their times, capable of collapsing the personal and the social, the indoor and outdoor, and — most startlingly — the private and the public.

Both artists set out on a journey of self-exploration and self-determination that is determined through a long process of photographing others, and both artists created biographies for thousands of nameless people by focusing on the intersections of history, politics, and geography. And now, both artists have inspired films that turn the camera around and do the same for them. Billingham even directed one, himself.

There’s a Richard Billingham photograph, taken in the mid-nineties, in which his mother, Liz, shakes a fist at his father, Ray. The wall behind Liz is covered in patterned wallpaper, and the cabinet nearby is cluttered with tchotchkes: little statues, porcelain figures, photo frames. Ray, perhaps scared or fed up or both, looks away. It is not an image that one would flaunt as a family photograph. And yet Billingham not only flaunted them, he also constructed a whole series of photographs, shot on the cheapest available film, in which he captured his working class parents over a number of years.

The photographer’s parents were living in the suburbs of Birmingham—infamously called “Black Country” because of the industrial fumes — and surviving poverty. And while he represented them with affection and sympathy, he also highlighted the appalling ways in which the couple lived, drank, smoked and solved jigsaw puzzles while their two children (Richard and his brother Jason), suffered from acute neglect. Billingham brings that same love and affection into making his debut feature film, “Ray & Liz.”

A beautifully shot triptych that’s steeped in kitchen-sink realism, the film allows its maker to revisit his personal history in three parts: The first devoted to his parts, the second to his adolescence, and the third to his solitary adult life as an alcoholic in a crummy public housing apartment. One might read Ray’s loneliness as a symptom the isolation that’s often bred by areas like Cradley Heath (where the Billinghams lived), especially in contrast to the richer neighborhoods of Birmingham. It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien, who grew up in a posh Birmingham neighborhood, hated looking out to the fumes and the sordidness of the Black Country so much that the view inspired his creation of Mordor, the “Land of Darkness.”

Billingham’s images are deep, picturesque, and grotesque, but they’re never offensive, provoking, or fetishizing. Through rich performances by Ella Smith and Deirdre Kelly (playing the younger and older Liz, respectively), and Justin Salinger and Patrick Romer (the younger and older Ray, both of whom eerily resemble the photographer’s parents), Billingham creates a hall of mirrors that makes it increasingly difficult to discern between his art and his life. He not only constructs a picture of his own dysfunctional family but also discloses the abject circumstances in which families lived on the outskirts of the industrial city of Birmingham, and suffered rampant unemployment under Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies.

The squalor and claustrophobia of a teeming metropolis is palpable in the film as the family’s tiny multiple apartments overflow with small things; there is never enough space, and that hyper-proximity is compounded by the continuous sound of drilling and passing trains. In the seminal “On Photography,” Susan Sontag insists that a painter constructs but a photographer discloses, and Billingham does just that. Through the depiction of his own family, he shows the living conditions of the other families who lived in Britain under similar circumstances. There is the stench and the decay, but there is also the fleeting beauty of a trail of cigarette smoke hanging in a slip of afternoon sunshine seeping in through lace curtains.

The Times of Bill Cunningham

Considering how Billingham dramatizes the history of a larger country through his portraiture of its ordinary people, Bill Cunningham — the subject of Mark Bozek’s documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” could be seen as his American counterpart. Cunningham, through the three million photographs that he took in his lifetime, showed how history is reflected in the people on the streets: what they wore, how they wore it, and where they went wearing it. Though guided by a fascination with fashion and people’s styles, Cunningham’s photographs (mostly unpublished until his death) developed into a diverse commentary on the people and the cultural milieu of New York.

Faraway from Billingham’s Birmingham, Cunningham toured the streets of New York City on his iconic bicycle, taking pictures of people. “No matter where you go in New York City, you will always discover something,” Cunningham says in the interview that forms the backbone of Bozek’s film. It is this sense of discovering, disclosing, and depicting that lends Cunningham’s work a gravitas that is similar to the work of a historian. It is not an exaggeration then to hear Cunningham call himself a fashion historian throughout the documentary.

While Billingham maintains a static, stupor-like pace in both “Ray & Liz,” and in the photographs that capture his parents in various poses of rest and leisure, Cunningham’s photographs are quick: men in mid-step, women caught in between a heated conversation, Jackie Kennedy sharing a smile with Calvin Klein. This is deftly complemented by the rapid showreel of images with which Bozek fills his documentary. For Cunningham, often naively considered a photographer of uppity social events, it didn’t matter if one was rich or poor, uptown or downtown; he saw the streets of New York as the mirror to the larger social changes sweeping through the country.

Neither Billingham nor Cunningham started out wanting to be photographers. Billingham trained as an artist who wanted paint portraits of his father. When the father refused to sit still, Billingham started taking his pictures in the hope of being able to refer to them while drawing the portraits. Cunningham worked as a milliner, was drafted in the army, worked for the chic Paris fashion label Chez Ninon, and wrote as a fashion journalist before a friend gifted him a camera and he began to play with it. Billingham’s parents had a small camera, but given the expenses involved in developing film, it was barely used. While their styles vary greatly and the two make for an extremely unlikely comparison, the connection between their works perhaps lies in the curiosity with which they unearth the ordinary, and then heighten it to the realms of the extraordinary.

Susan Sontag argues that all photographs “testify to time’s relentless melt”; by freezing a subject in time, the photographer also freezes the subject’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” Cunningham’s photograph of the then reclusive Greta Garbo in a nutria coat comes to mind. It not only brings the superstar’s aging and mutability to the consciousness of the viewer but also freezes her in time: forever beautiful in her beautiful coat, forever held in her still gaze through her big sunglasses. Billingham, in his own bid to freeze time, takes great pains in drawing out tedious details of his parents’ lives and apartments. Turning back the clock, he recreates his mother long after her death as he shoots Ella Smith dressed in a floral dress, sitting against a lace curtained window, while she smokes and arranges some flowers on the table. Her fingers are decked out with big rings that reflect the light of the golden hour while she stirs her cup of tea. These same rings are visible when she shakes a fist at her brother-in-law, Lol, almost as if the real Liz had walked out of one of Billingham’s photographs, with her tattooed arms on display — defying death and time, yet acutely defined by her mortality.

Billingham’s portraits are stark and color-blocked, often developed from scratched negatives. “Ray and Liz” is a biography that is exactly like the photographs that make it up: scratchy, grotesque but always with an underlying sense of beauty. Cunningham’s photography has a distinct street style that were a mainstay of the The New York Times for a long time. It is only natural that a documentary on him captures the urgency and the diversity of a New York minute. The work of these photographers resulted in living documents emerging from the intersections of history, politics, and geography; these films about them find that the people behind the camera were every bit as fascinating as the ones they found in front of them.

“Ray & Liz” and “The Times of Bill Cunningham” screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival. Both films are seeking U.S. distribution.

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