Social Media

Ray's a Laugh: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Ray's a Laugh Photographs by Richard Billingham Reviewed by Blake Andrews “Ray’s A Laugh is legendary among photobooks, beloved by critics and casual fans alike. It’s hard to believe Richard Billingham was only 26 when the Scalo edition was published in 1996..."

Ray's a Laugh. By Richard Billingham.
Ray's a Laugh
Photographs by Richard Billingham
MACK Books, London, UK, 2024. 104 pp., 8¼x11".

Ray’s a Laugh is legendary among photobooks, beloved by critics and casual fans alike. It’s hard to believe Richard Billingham was only 26 when the Scalo edition was published in 1996. Adapting its title from an old BBC series, his debut monograph offered a candid and uncomfortably probing document of his working class family captured in their grungy flat in Cradley Heath, England. As Billingham described his father in the book’s brief text, “Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.” As for his mother, “Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative.”

If Billingham’s words seemed a harsh judgment of his parents, his photographs aired their dirty laundry for all to see. Ray was depicted as a bumbling, groggy, and henpecked figure. Elizabeth muddled about in floral gowns and tattooed forearms, always with a cigarette. Revolving around the central couple was a supporting cast including Richard’s younger brother — “Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him” — and a small army of skittish animals. Billingham used flash, blurred exposures, off-kilter composition, and tight framing to foster an impression of bed-spinning chaos. Ray was a laugh indeed. But it wasn’t clear if we were meant to laugh at him or with him.

The book’s unflinching gaze and brisk design made for a smash hit. Ray’s a Laugh earned the Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize (now called the Deutsche Börse Prize), a rare plug from Robert Frank, a writeup in Parr/Badger Volume II, and a place in the photo canon for Billingham. All was well for Billingham enthusiasts, unless you were an unlucky latecomer hoping to hold his book in person. The initial editions quickly went out of print and have been hard to find since. A 2014 facsimile homage from Errata Editions stemmed market demand temporarily. But it was not exactly the real thing, and it proved to be just a stopgap measure.

Michael Mack to the rescue. In what has become a regular routine for his eponymous publisher, Mack’s recent edition of Ray’s a Laugh breathes new life into the old classic. The resuscitative impulse is familiar, but unlike most of Mack’s reprintings to date, this Ray’s a Laugh is radically altered from the original. According to Mack this is the “director’s cut” which restores Billingham’s original vision for the work. Director’s uncut is more like it. This sprawling update stakes out its own territory in a larger, thicker volume. The two books share the same genetic material. Beyond that, they are distant relatives.

One trait which distinguished the original Ray’s a Laugh was its economy of purpose. It was a relatively thin book packed with full bleed photographs, each one pulling equal weight in unison. Within the first five pages, Billingham had summarily set the scene geographically, introduced his parents, his brother, the pets, and the domestic chaos to come. In following rush of photos, Ray was almost always shown holding a drink or a greasy plate. The apartment was filthy. The pets were frantic. The colors were garish. Strangely inserted pictures of avian greenery hinted at better times, somewhere some place out there. The book struck an indelible crescendo with a centerfold of Ray cowering below an airborne cat.

Mack’s version tells roughly the same tale, and extends it into the next generation for good measure with photos of Jason’s infant. But this book’s journey is far more circuitous. Scalo’s original was 100 pages, while Mack’s clocks in at 320. A few dozen of them are taken up initially with monochrome impressions of Ray. In due time these morph into colorful apartment scenes. It’s another two dozen pages before we finally meet Jason. Other domestic elements gradually come into focus (or blur?) including Elizabeth, the resident dog and cat, flying objects, puzzles, and spills. Most subjects are just as frantic and belligerent as before, but at this syrupy pace their impact is measured. Meanwhile the book’s layout is varied, with images color corrected. Both features would work well in most photobooks, but here they defuse the in-your-face havoc which so electrified the original. The well placed bird photos, which struck a tone of alien dissonance before, are somewhat lost in the mix here. The blunt shock of the original is unpacked into a feature length epic which feels closer to cinema than snapshots.

On the plus side, the expanded scope allows inclusion of several standout images. A shaky photo of Ray behind unfocused shot glasses is a revelation, as is a somber portrait on the sofa lit by an extraordinary open flame. I have no idea how these were left out of the initial cut, but they’ve been happily restored. Other photos fill in missing gaps here and there with snatches of apartment interior or drunken incidents. Jason’s baby is a bright spot, as are glimpses of his partner. A picture of Ray holding his granddaughter is sweet and life affirming. These additions fill out the narrative of existential lineage. But the titular subject remains trapped in his small world. Ray’s a laugh still, just as he was twenty-eight years ago.

Unfortunately Billingham had little influence over Scalo’s original design. While this version of Ray’s a Laugh reinstates his envisioning of work, the expanded tome leaves less to the viewer’s imagination. The first edition was hermetic and assured, invasive if not outright creepy. In Parr/Badger’s words it was “raw, immediate, unpretentious, funny, touching, and desperate by turns.” The Mack version may also possess those traits, but they’re defused in a looser, free ranging tome. There is no explanatory text, no colophon, captions, dates, or written information of any kind. That material, plus critical analysis, is offered in a supplementary primer called Ray's a Laugh: A Reader, also available from MACK this Spring. As a minor homage to Scalo, it features the same cover as the first addition, a blurred visage of Ray Billingham against a red background, laughing to himself.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at