Richard Billingham: It's all in the eye of the beholder

His intimately honest studies of his parents' sordid home life captivated the critics and won him a Turner nomination. Kevin Jackson finds him passionate in his defence of the beauty beneath the grime
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Down from his home in Stourbridge briefly for a meeting of this year's Turner Prize nominees at Tate Britain, Richard Billingham is looking and sounding mildly perplexed, still not quite sure that he belongs in the same category as the other candidates, maybe more than a shade suspicious of the big city's fickle, predatory art world and of all the nasty surprises it might have in store for him. I should probably admit from the outset that he doesn't seem all that trusting of my motives, either. "I don't want you to write all anecdotal stuff, what I'm saying," he warns me sternly. "I don't want you to just write, like, a story..."

Thrown by this unexpected command, I am incapable of mustering any of those dazzlingly eloquent defences of narrative as a mode of knowledge that will subsequently occur to me in the insomniac watches of the following nights, and simply mumble something feeble about how people like reading stories.

Anyway, still incorrigibly wedded to the anecdotal method by temperament as well as trade, my first inclination here is to report that, when asked how he felt when he heard about the nomination, Billingham says that it made him feel anxious: "I was thinking whether to accept or not, because, you know, it's a lot of stress..."

At first, I suspect that he must simply be play-acting the role of diffident provincial innocent here, exaggerating the degree to which all this media attention is a worry-inducing novelty. You don't get swept up by the Turner Prize mechanism from nowhere, and Billingham is already pretty well known in artistic circles; it's only a couple of months since his photographs filled a large wall at the Saatchi Gallery for the I Am a Camera show. Before long, though, it becomes apparent that he is either a) a brilliantly deadpan performer, or b) genuinely the character he presents himself as being ­ idealistically committed to the art of picture-making, socially guileless, and wary in the extreme of being misrepresented and misunderstood.

It's not hard to sympathise, especially because, once you get past the defensiveness, he seems like a nice enough chap. Still in the early years of his career (he was born in 1970, and looks more boyish than you might expect), Billingham is already in danger of being typecast, permanently identified with a body of work that he's now left behind for good: the intimate studies of his parents collected in a book entitled Ray's a Laugh (1996). Its title was a punning allusion to the old BBC comedy show starring the wholesome entertainer Ted Ray, and also to the photographer's father, Ray Billingham, who at the time was rather too fond of a drink or seven. One shot, unlikely to find its way on to an RSPCA appeal calendar, shows Mr B angrily hurling a cat across the room.

Ray's a Laugh drew a great deal of enthusiastic attention from press and critics. Some of it was sickly, over-educated gush about the dense patterns of art-historical references in his compositions (most of which, he admits, are indeed there, "like the Goya one of my mum stretched out on the sofa...", but which were arrived at in a manner more intuitive than calculated). But much of the attention was fixated on the content, which, if you find that sort of thing sordid, was sordid: slimy stains on the walls; copiously overflowing ashtrays and other signs of a relaxed attitude to the niceties of housekeeping; Mrs B's more-than-Rubensesque proportions and lively forearm tattoos; and other details likely to provoke concern in the social worker, titillation in the social voyeur and queasy misgivings in those who cherish ideals of family privacy.

"I'm sure a lot of people were looking at them for the wrong reasons," Billingham now concedes. "I don't think this happens in the art world because people can look properly. But they caught the general public's eye because they were looking at the subject matter... I soon clocked on to this, after a couple of months. See, I thought everybody could read photographs, but they can't... I was shocked when I realised it, that people can't read photographs. It was 'Oh, look at those stains on the wall, look at his mum's tattoos...' and I never saw none of that, honestly, that just happened to be there. People weren't seeing any beauty underneath, none of the composition, none of the pattern." (And, for what it's worth, I find myself entirely convinced by this guileless account of his motives.)

The Ray's a Laugh series came about as a sort of by-product, when he was collecting materials for some paintings he was engaged in as an art student in the early 1990s. "I didn't want to paint my family specifically, it's just that it's hard to get somebody to sit for you for long periods of time. I wanted to do some paintings, a bit like Sickert, of figures in interiors, they way they relate to the space and so on, and taking the photographs was just a good source of reference material..."

He began his formal training with a foundation year at Bournville College, not far from his family's home, and enjoyed the old-fashioned nature of its teaching. "I learned more in one year there than on three years of my degree course. At least they taught you to draw, still lifes and models and so on: it teaches you to look. Henry Moore said that drawing the life model is the act that requires the most concentration..."

He went on to art college in Sunderland: "The only art school I could get into. Not that I was thick or anything... The reason I didn't get into the other 16 art schools I applied to was because when it came to A-levels I wanted to do sciences. So I did chemistry, physics, biology and art. I'm sure it worked against me, because it looked like I didn't know what I was doing... But I did." Is he still interested in science? "Yes, but... It's more like nature, now, looking at the beauty of the natural world."

I point out that all this unfashionable talk of beauty and nature and skill puts him in danger of sounding like John Ruskin. "Ruskin was my favourite critic when I was at Sunderland... I read a lot of it through [the writings of the late English art critic] Peter Fuller, he opened my eyes to Ruskin." (Even more surprisingly, Billingham reveals that he went through a brief but passionate immersion in the conservative aesthetics of Roger Scruton.)

On graduation in 1994, he moved back down to the Midlands, working in a supermarket by day and pursuing painting and photography in his free time. Ray's a Laugh happened by something very close to sheer fluke. "There was this visiting lecturer at Sunderland, and he saw some of these photographs lying on my studio floor... and was picking them up, saying, 'These are great photographs.' I did have a fantasy early on about exhibiting some of these photographs large, in galleries, but honestly, where I come from I had no idea what the art world was, I had no idea what an artist was, and I didn't know you could exhibit big photographs in a gallery. I thought I'd have to exhibit them alongside paintings in order to justify them as art... Then the book was published and the phone never stopped ringing. I thought, 'What's the big deal?' you know?"

With immediate success also came immediate stereotyping as the kid from the scruffy, boozed-up family, and the recognition that he needed to find a radical new turn or be trapped. He turned to videotape, and to a large-format camera with which he could take sweeping, if somewhat featureless landscapes of his home turf in the Midlands. "I thought that if I take photographs of where I grew up and choose the most boring subjects I could think of and still make them good, take a photograph of nothing but still make it good, then there's no surface, nothing that..." You mean, no anecdotal content to fuss about? Right. "They can't look at a stain on the wall or a dog licking the floor, so if people do like these photographs then they'll genuinely like them for what they are..."

Fortunately, some people at least do seem to like them, and to be willing to let him develop in his own way. He's been awarded a brace of residences from November this year onwards, first in Dublin and then in the British School in Rome, and he's planning to use the studio space they offer for a major return to painting. Meanwhile, he's just going to have to sweat out the "anxious" time between now and the Turner Prize awards, while declaring his own indifference to the eventual outcome. And his parents? Well, they like the sound of the £20,000, but are otherwise as little interested in this stage of his career as they were in the fuss about Ray's a Laugh.

Time to wind up the interview with the usual professions of thanks and other such social lubrication. For some reason, The Independent's photographer, Nick, brings out a copy of Gogol's Dead Souls and enthuses about its brilliance. Playing "snap", I pull out a copy of Nabokov's Gogol biography. Billingham joins in the game, reaches into his pack and reveals his current train reading; an American edition of George Steiner's critico-philosophical treatise Real Presences. This, I realise, is nothing more than a small anecdotal detail, but I can't help suspecting that it says something revealing about him.