The photograph is often a by-product of putting my family in challenging situations; it helps us start to talk about the difficult things…
Taking a picture helps me understand life.
We all take family photographs, but few are naturalistic or, in any real sense, documentary. We learn from an early age how to pose for the camera. The family album is not so much a history as an aspirational myth. It is a world of unending holidays, fancy meals, hanging out with friends… and always, always happy. But the conventions of family photography are such that few of us think of it in this way. It is just something we do.
Over the past four decades, the British artist Colin Gray has made very different family photographs. In them he stages events played out by his parents, not as they happen but in carefully constructed tableaux. While these are posed, they have little in common with the conventional family album. Some are whimsical, some poignant, some dark, some fantastical. Together, they build a perceptive portrait not simply of Ron and Rene Gray, but of the relationship of parents one with the other, and to their child.
When he began in the 1980s, art photography in Britain was in the grip of postmodern theory. Ironically, while this theory tended to emphasise the contingent and relativistic nature of art and meaning, those in the cultural elite adopted a surprisingly hard line on what was and was not appropriate to the cultural canon. Photographing your mum and dad was not among the approved subjects, being considered far too homely to constitute serious art. Thus, by taking the path less travelled, Colin Gray began a body of work with few peers; one which has spanned a generation bringing him to the age his father was when the series began.
The images depict a curiously public intimacy, as aspects of family life not usually discussed outside the home (or even in it) become not simply representations of specific people, but meditations upon the complex nature of parenting and the domestic dynamic. This is reflected in the way Colin talks about his two doughty subjects, sometimes using the familiar ‘Mum and Dad’, sometimes the more formal description of ‘my mother and my father’ and, as the years pass and everyone ages, as one adult to another by their personal names: Rene and Ron.
Given this multi-layered quality, the work has not only become highly regarded in the art world nationally and internationally, but has proved a useful therapeutic means by which others can reflect upon the challenges of intergenerational family life: ageing, the shift in dependence, illness and the ultimate departure of loved ones.
When did you begin to photograph your parents in this distinctive way?
I started in 1980. I’d had moved to London to work as a photographer and I was missing my home town of Hull and my parents. So, I decided to create a family album. The photographer I worked with had a Hasselblad camera, which I borrowed during the weekends. I felt comfortable with the camera’s square format, perhaps harking back to my Dad’s Box Brownie, a camera we used to take our holiday photos in the 1960s. Back then, I’d share a roll of film with my Dad, taking one picture a day on a twelve-exposure film.
What drew you to represent your parents through these staged and semi-staged tableaux?
I started taking pictures in a documentary way, but there seemed to be something missing. The pictures looked impersonal, anyone could have taken them. Also, it is difficult to work fast using a medium-format camera. I would see real situations arise that I had no time to capture. So, I’d restage these situations so that I could photograph them.
‘Capers’ is about what my Dad and I got up to when Mum was out of the house: fooling around, playing games, drinking beer and watching horse racing on TV. We are listening out for when my mother returns so we can put everything back to normal. When Mum saw this image, she realised that when she was out my Dad and I would be up to no good!
The image called ‘Meat and Two Veg’ has a similarly quirky sensibility…
My Dad was a shop steward. Each Friday evening, he had to phone round to collect money for the union. My Mum would be in the kitchen cooking what we British call meat and two veg; a typical, if basic, meal. I got fed up of eating it and so, in protest, presented it in its other, more phallic, meaning.
And as time goes on the images become more surreal…
Yes. We really enjoyed working this way. So much so that the pictures shifted from restaging actual events to inventing them. It was more fun!
I had a recurring dream: I’d wake up and find the house half submerged in water. (Parts of Hull are below sea level and if the tide is high, areas of the town do get flooded, but it never actually happened to us.) In my dream, I would have to hold my breath and swim down stairs for breakfast. Things would be floating about and my parents would be in their swimming gear. That dream was realised as ‘Hull Under Water’.
Given the time they were made, I am assuming these were created wholly in-camera.
In the early 1980s, I was experimenting in my commercial work, creating album sleeves and book covers. However, I wanted my personal work to be visually expressive and not let the visual style overwhelm the personal and emotional content of these images. I was shooting on a Hasselblad camera with a Polaroid back, so I could take a test picture … a minute later you could see the image as a print. This was good because my parents could look at these initial Polaroids and make their own suggestions, some of which were pretty crazy. Each picture kept evolving from an initial idea, until the finished result looked nothing like I’d first imagined it.
Can you give an example?
‘When you get to Heaven’ started by imagining my parents as their respective personal heroes. Rene is Jeanette MacDonald, an American singer and actress best remembered for her musical films of the 1930s. Mum would sing along to the track Sweet Rosemary, much to our annoyance. Ron is John Rickman, a TV horse racing commentator and tipster, popular in the 1960s and 1970s. He often wore a hat, like my Dad, which he would doff to say hello to the viewers.
How did your parents respond to the project?
They were initially reluctant to get involved because they were both working and didn’t have much free time. But the sessions were fun and brought us closer together. When my parents retired in 1985, they had more time and the work became more collaborative. I’d have an idea for a picture; my parents’ initial response would be “Oh no”… but then with a little persuasion over a cup of tea, we would start to chat about it and they’d begin coming up with their own ideas. At first, their ideas seemed silly to me, as if they didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. The things they came up with were so left of field, but in time I began to realise they were brilliant. So, I learned to go with the flow, integrating their ideas and my own. As these photographs began to receive more public recognition, my parents realised that this was a serious project and I wasn’t just messing about. So, they gave it more attention.
Did things change when your parents retired?
When my father retired, he assumed he would be taking it easy. However, my mother had other ideas: she took it easy and my Dad did a lot of the work. In ‘The Grate Outdoors’, we see Rene sipping piña colada and reading trashy novels, pretending she’s on a desert island, while Ron does all the house work; here, symbolically, cleaning the chimney.
Were there moments when you were making these images that you felt you might have crossed the line?
In 1988, we made a photo called ‘Night Shift’. I wanted to ask my parents if the still made love. This was very cheeky of me! As I was setting up the picture, Mum, who was trying to collaborate, asked me why they were sitting on the bed facing away from each other. I said: “the picture is about you both not having sex”. She said “Oh right”, but didn’t deny it. However, a year or two later my sister told me that Rene had said that they both had an active love life. So, she’d just pretended not to … perhaps it was her way of telling me it was none of my business…
Were there any pictures your parents really did not like?
‘Looking Glass’. I shot this through my Mum’s favourite wine glass, but she never liked the picture. It magnified her wrinkles and made her look old.
Aging must have been an inevitable subtext to the work.
Yes, my parents were getting older: over the hill as we say, and I was now living in Scotland, far away from them. I wanted to make a picture of them sledging over the house, but that would have been too dangerous. Then I saw white sheets hanging on the washing line and found an old bath they’d thrown out … we made ‘Over the Hill and Far Away’. It was very cold, so Mum and Dad wore lots of clothes and had a hot water bottle to keep them warm.
In 2000 you started a new series, ‘In Sickness and In Health’ which opened another, very different, chapter in the story of your parents. How did that series begin?
As the 1990s drew to a close, the hospital and church visits were becoming more frequent, the ailments more serious, the drugs ever more complex. Consequently, the pictures became less playful and more realistic, as if preparing for what was to come…
In 2000, my mother had a stroke.
It was difficult to get my father to talk about his feelings about Rene and her sudden stroke. To shake my father out of his withdrawn silence, I decided to try shock therapy. So, although he can’t swim, I got Ron to submerge himself underwater. It was a catalyst and he started to talk. I have found that making pictures that put my father in difficult situations – taking him out of his comfort zone – helped him open up so that we can talk about our feelings. Later, in a more public context, I found that showing these works could be therapeutic for other people as it would help them to share their own experiences for caring for dying loved ones.
One image I find particularly haunting is the photograph of your father behind a small posy of artificial flowers.
We had been visiting Rene in hospital. Ron and I went for food … it was really bad. As I looked across the table, I saw this image. It reminded me of pictures of dead people with coins on their eyes. The elements in the picture are bland – my sad Dad, the ugly plastic flowers, the hospital lighting – yet aligned like this, something magical happened.
How have these series been received by the public?
Initially, people couldn’t understand why would I take photos of my parents. Then, it wasn’t really an art genre the way it is now. The public liked the humour but, as art, parents-plus-humour wasn’t considered a great recipe at the time. ‘In Sickness and in Health’ also took time to be accepted; illness and death are not things we British are comfortable engaging with openly.
But times change and now the work is very well accepted. I have shown the images in many parts of the world and spoken about them across a broad range of public platforms: fine art, political, and medical, especially in relation to the subject of ageing and dementia.
Do you think you could start a series like this today?
No. Too many people have jumped onto this bandwagon. When I made the work, I was sailing without a compass. I had influences for some individual pictures (everything from Laurel and Hardy to Diane Arbus) but the series was, at the time, an original concept with a unique visual style.
Which image best captures your parents for you?
Heaven and Hull. It was really fun to do and it really sums up the contrasting personalities of my parents. They came to the local fancy-dress shop to help choose the costumes and then spent the whole day dressed like this, interacting in an exaggerated play on their respective personalities. For me, the image made their relationship a lot clearer: Rene is the angel keeping Ron, the devil-at-home, in his place. She traps him; stopping him from nipping down the pub, having a cigarette, or going to the bookies to bet on the horses. She wears the trousers.
More generally, what did you learn through the making of this work that you did not understand before?
Well, it’s 37 years since I started the series. A lot of things have changed in my life. I am about the same age as my Dad was when I started the project and I can see my own future in their history. I have come to understand the changes in life as I get older, I feel the ailments my parents suffered. When you are young these are similarities you don’t want to acknowledge then, in middle age, you begin to accept them. That said, family traits can often skip a generation: for example, my son is more like my father then me.
I have used the work to actively examine our family relationships, recognising our shared traits, understanding our frailties. The later work especially has been therapeutic, using the photos as a catalyst to help us talk about the illnesses and losses we have endured. The photograph is often a by-product of putting my family in challenging situations; it helps us start to talk about the difficult things. There’s no agenda, we just start to talk and make pictures… Taking a picture helps me understand life.
Do you see this as a sad series?
There is a photo of Ron standing in the cemetery holding the urn that contains Rene’s ashes. We were waiting for the rest of the family to arrive in the black cars. It was a very sad day… but Ron is standing beside the family tree – the place where the ashes of our departed relatives are scattered… The tree is a living grave stone; a reminder that in a family each life connects to others.
For many years, I kept the sheet from my parents’ bed, the sheet on which I was born. I wasn’t sure how or when I might exhibit it. Then, when I first showed both series together, I framed the sheet and hung it next to the image of my mother in her coffin. My start of life and her end of life.
Over the years, my parents wore two furrows in that sheet; Dad slept on the left, Mum on right. I was born at home on that sheet. I imagine the scene… It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in May. Dad is downstairs listening to the football on the radio; England are playing West Germany. Upstairs, my grandmother delivers me. Goal! England score!
Colin Gray was born in Hull, England, in 1956. He received a first class bachelor of arts (Hons) in graphic design in 1980 and a master of art in photography from the Royal College of Art, London, in 1982. He has exhibited widely in Europe and his work has toured to China and Australia. His images have featured in a number of books including ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ (Thames & Hudson 2004) and ‘Family Photography Now’ (Thames & Hudson 2016), and in two monographs: ‘The Parents’ (Fotofeis 1995) and ‘In Sickness and in Health’ (Steidl-Mack 2010). He has twice won a silver award from D&AD and in 1997 received the gold European Champion’s Award from ADCE.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures on 18 April 2020.
Republished here to mark the launch of Colin Gray’s new exhibition, ‘Caught Between’, which opens at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, on the 11 February through to 23 April 2023.