My favourite exhibit in our new exhibition, In the Blink of an Eye: Media and Movement, is an image from Richard Billingham’s photographic series Ray’s a Laugh.
My initial reaction was to giggle. It took me a while to work out what is actually going on. Is it a stuffed cat hanging from the ceiling? Has it been thrown? Where could it have jumped from? Will the cat just land on Ray’s head? Will it land safely (maintaining all nine lives), and the surprise send Ray off balance, causing the garden chair he’s sat on to topple over? Or has he not even noticed the flying feline? His eyes are not directed towards the cat, which suggests he doesn’t really care whether it lands safely or not.
What I find most captivating about this image is its immediacy. A moment later and the cat might have looked destined for a safe landing, a moment earlier and Ray’s position might have been static. Most of the photograph is out of focus, which attests to it not being staged. I’m drawn to the parts which are in focus—predominantly Ray’s face. His reaction, or disconnection with the scene around him, makes this situation all the more absurd. Despite Ray’s clean and tidy jacket and combed-back hair, the presence of a can of Old Somerset points to a lack of sobriety.
I haven’t been working for the museum long, so I only learned that this photograph would be included in the exhibition as we began to move the objects from storage up to the gallery. At first I thought this was a surprising inclusion. I’m familiar with Billingham’s work, but have never thought about the movement in this image. Seeing it alongside more traditional representations of movement in photography, I now look at it with fresh eyes.
Read more about Billingham’s work in our history of photography.