The art world lapped it up. The US art magazine ArtForum called the photographs "a sort of visitation"; the UK's Art Monthly found the pictures "riveting"; the British magazine Frieze admitted to "fascination". Then the Richard Billingham story began to leak out into the wider press; as if something about this young man's pictures touched a tender point in the public imagination. By the time his work appeared in last year's new Brit-art blockbuster "Sensation" at the Royal Academy, he was famous - at least, in art terms. And after the exhibition he was lionised by critics as one of the few authentic voices in a show full of hip sophists. Billingham enjoyed this vindication of his art, particularly since "it works on different levels and you don't have to be really clever to appreciate it."
Those who liked Ray's A Laugh can see on television next month a Billingham film called Fishtank, made from footage filmed since 1996. All the family characters are back - this time talking, moving, singing and swigging in full video vision - in a kind of animated update of the book. "Lots of short films that somehow go together," Billingham calls it. Sequences include his brother Jason swatting flies, his father drinking and singing, his mother playing a computer game. Yet somehow it doesn't seem quite as desperate as the photographs. The household comes across as eccentric and engaging, with a menagerie that includes the fish, a hamster, and a snake which dances with Elizabeth. Now the family has a huge iguana too. "It's my iguana, like, but I keep it there," says Billingham. "It eats a whole lettuce at a time."
Fishtank is, as every Billingham project seems to be, serendipitous. "I never intended to make a TV film, but I've been writing a screenplay about when I was a student, and I started using the camcorder to find out how people really speak," says Billingham, who admires the realistic dialogue in Gary Oldman's film Nil By Mouth. This is the way he works and, as always, he has "just done it for myself". But the fact that he already has an entry in Phaidon Press's history of photography clearly delights him. He "just did it for himself" - and look what has happened.
The Richard Billingham story seems to have passed into urban folklore. John Waters' latest film Pecker is a satire charting the rise of Pecker, a working-class photographer from Baltimore (Waters' home town) whose chance discovery by the New York art world propels him into art stardom, which threatens to destroy his beloved home life. Ultimately, however, the art world learns about life from him and his family.
Could this gentle, shy, ordinary-looking 28-year-old in jeans and Adidas top be the muse for the movie that is doing for the art world what Pret A Porter did for fashion? "I couldn't believe it when people told me there's a Hollywood film being made and it sounded just like my life," says Billingham. "Everyone says that it is based on me." Waters has since denied that Billingham inspired his film, but the idea is certainly feasible. ArtForum, which breathlessly praised Billingham as "just a kid with a camera", is widely read in the US; Waters has published a book with Scalo, which published Ray's A Laugh, and he is himself a photographer and art buff. "He's had ample opportunity to know about me and my work," says Billingham, who still hasn't seen the film. "The premiere's tonight and I haven't even got a ticket. I thought at least I might get an invite." He is thinking of going to Leicester Square to look at tonight's crowd - a very Pecker-like response. Billingham is amused, but is also nervous that it will "commercialise people's conception of me and my work".
Whether or not Pecker is Billingham's story scarcely matters. The fact is that lots of people want to think it is. The Billingham/Pecker life is the contemporary good luck story, a 42nd Street fantasy ("I'm gonna make you a star!") for art students.
Billingham says that after the book, his life "changed overnight". He started jetting around the world. "I realised I had a funny view of what being an artist meant. I didn't know you travelled all over the world. I thought that even if you were a famous artist you didn't get much money. I didn't know you got paid to go to an opening in Australia!" Then there was all the detritus of fame - letters from students, invitations to do talks, offers to do advertising, which he resisted. And work that sold. "Too well, if anything," he says, as if it might spoil him yet.
He says he has had more success abroad than in the UK, where his photographs have tended to be seen as a harrowing chronicle of "underclass" desperation. "I don't like it when people write stuff like that," he says. "It shows they're not looking hard enough. There's emotional meaning to them." In Edinburgh he gave a lecture and a tutor kept calling his work "political". "I never thought that when I was doing them. There's politics there but it's secondary. What you first see is the emotion." He tried to correct her, saying that he had never even voted, but she argued that that was "political in itself" and he gave up.
Does he feel patronised by these contrivances? "I've always wanted to move people as much as I can, so much that they cry. Sometimes women look at the book and they cry and I think, `I've done it.' I just want to move the viewer as much as possible."
Compassion is the buzz word in most appraisals of Billingham's work, though others have presumed he is emotionally uninvolved - after all, he was able to take a photograph of his father lying on the toilet floor. But he works to avoid cuddly sentimentality. "That's not art. Sentimentality is false emotions. I look for real warmth and love in the work." His pictures take part of their power from the emotive universality of the family snapshot. As he remarks, everybody has taken photographs, "especially of their family".
One should not get the Billingham story out of perspective; after all, it is low key compared with the meteoric rise of some rock stars. When I ask what he earns, Billingham says "Enough to get a mortgage" - on a house in a suburb of Stourbridge. "I was born in the area and I have an affinity with it and I feel comfortable making my work here," he says. "If I took photographs in London, they'd look just like tourist photographs." He has not become flashy. "I'm still the same. I still haven't learnt to drive, bought a sports car or anything like that." Nor does he lig around the art scene. "I like parties, and I like looking at work, but I don't feel part of the art world." Perhaps he'll move to Brighton, where his social-worker girlfriend lives.
His home is "about four miles away" from his parents, but he will not divulge where they live. "I don't want people going there or nothing like that." After Ray's A Laugh some TV companies called to ask him if they could make a documentary on his family. He quickly sussed out that they were interested in their picturesque dilapidation and said no. "One producer was so persuasive she drove all the way to see me, even though she knew I wasn't interested."
One senses that Billingham has always felt a little bit separate, a bit estranged from the crowd. "When I was a teenager I never went out. I stopped in my room studying books, that's all I did. I didn't speak to anybody until I went to university." His parents left him to his own devices and, as he puts it, "no one saw me. Sometimes I'd wish I had parents like other kids, who had the knowledge or backing to say do this or that." But at least this experience has left him with a singular if insular attitude. "I do what I have to do."
He always wanted to be an artist but decided to do sciences at A-level, to ensure a job, and because he liked the idea of acquiring a scientific, logical mind to make sense of "the woolly subject of art". Then Billingham went on to the University of Sunderland to study fine art. He took his cache of family photos, the idea being to use them to paint from. "I didn't think of them as art," he says, and, for a short while, he didn't admit he was related to the subjects. "The other students came from secure backgrounds financially and spiritually. So I didn't let on at first. Then I felt, sod it, why should I hide? This is my mum and dad. They're photographs of my family and they're poor and haven't got much money and everything, but my emotions are the same."
In the West End pub where we meet, he brings out a Daler book with some new photographs, a few of which are exhibited at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery. "They're not so immediate," he says, almost apologetically. They are of background parts of the Stourbridge landscape, little car parks, a suburban waste ground, a mundane red-brick corner, a bus stop with a vandalised bench: like scenes of a crime, or places where school children sit. "They are places I might have passed on the way to school. I have tried to make them as personal as portraits." Then he says, by way of reminder, "People think all I've ever done is show my family, but I do other things."
He'd now actively like to get public recognition for something else. "People always say `what next'? But I do lots of different things at any time. Recently I've been photographing women on billboards, and doing self-portraits." He also wants to make more short films, like the two videos he is showing at Anthony Reynolds, showing people smoking in reverse, so that the smoke curls back into their mouths like in a video rewind. He says he doesn't want to take any more pictures of his family. "I was innocent then. If I carried on, it would be exploitation."
Have his family become more knowing, since they hit the public eye? "The thing about my parents is that they're naive. They haven't changed. They don't mind being shown. They like the film better than the photographs, and the one reason I can think of is that TV is their medium. They watch it all the time, it's all they know and I must be famous if I've trickled down into their medium. They don't look at books." Oddly, although Richard himself admits to being acutely self-conscious, his family are completely unbothered about being filmed.
Locally they have remained undisturbed. "Except there was just one person dressed in a suit. He caught the lift with my dad and he says, `Is your name Ray?' And dad said `yes', and he said `I've just bought a book about you.' I don't know what he was doing in the tower block; like seeing a bird of paradise."
Jason is the only family member to have recognised the Billingham phenomenon, and in the film he refers to it, via Bjork: "Have you heard her sing, all out of key and out of tune?" "He can't understand why I'm famous for taking such bad pictures," says Billingham, "and he likens me to Bjork." Jason remains unemployed. "He's not very motivated. I've taken him to the Atlantic Bar and stuff. But going out, meeting people and drinking isn't his thing. He prefers to stay in, play computer games and smoke spliffs."
Ray Billingham has moved on from the home brew. He doesn't drink so much now." Is he drying out? "No, he's getting older and he just goes to sleep. He drinks cheap cider from the off licence and just a bottle a night does him. Ray drinks as he watches the fish in the tank, and that's why I've called the film Fishtank. That's my favourite bit of footage, where he's watching the fish."
It's irresistible to see the Billingham's council flat as the metaphorical fishtank. Ray looks at his fish, we look at his family. As for his son Richard, he is "still working it all out", trying to make sense of a life that has already become legend.
`Fishtank' by Richard Billingham will be shown on 13 December, BBC2; `Pecker' is released on 5 February 1999.Reuse content