Bill Henson

Since his first solo show at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1975, Bill Henson has been captivated by the liminal, the evasive, and the in-between. Traversing cool grey zones including adolescence and suburbia, his photographic images offer neither conclusions nor condolences to audiences who sense a mystery at work beneath their beautiful surfaces. Celebrating his current show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, we share his cover profile from Artist Profile 54.

Bill Henson is preparing for an upcoming show. He says that “new pictures grow out of old pictures. With these recently completed works there has been a twenty-two year gestation period.” Particular modes of figuration, themes, and textures have remained interesting to the artist over his career: young people in the fragile dawn of their adulthood, architectural space from the suburbs of Melbourne to ancient Egypt, skin that looks like marble, marble that looks like it knows something we don’t. For him, there has been a pleasure in looking back through his own archive in preparation for this show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, and in his experience of having “looked at these works in the original contact proof-sheets (made from the old negatives) for years. I had always found them interesting and had annotated the proof-shots accordingly, but I never got around to resolving what I needed to do to complete them in a final print; that is, until last year.”

Not only in returning to old work, but in continuing to take new photographs, Henson is interested in long-term continuity. Working with models for years at a time, as they grow up in front of the lens, he finds that “as in every kind of constructive activity, things are revealed to you through the process of working. When you have a long-term relationship with your models, a number of important things occur. The model, through their particular nature and how that evolves over time, starts to inform and shape the work that you make together. There is what could be called a journey of discovery that both artist and model embark on, and the destination is always unknown. An isolated encounter would not produce the same result.” He often half-crafts and half-captures moments of intense intimacy – between two subjects in one image, but also between the subject and the camera, or the viewer who discovers them in moments that often feel private and soaked with soft emotion. But he’s also interested in the ultimate unknowability which adheres to his subjects; though he works with the same collaborators and models for years, he says that you “never fully understand why someone chooses to become involved as a model – but of course, they have their reasons. It would be presumptuous, I think, for me to believe that I knew exactly why they commit themselves to a particular project.”

Something unknown that rests, on its haunches, at the centre of each image is present throughout Henson’s work. In figurative pictures like Untitled #25, 1976-16, where the model’s face and neck turn, eyes closed, up and away from the camera, there is unknowability in the shadows that envelop the subject. So too, might there be something strange in this picture’s light: is the hesitant flash of orange above the mouth a reflection from a back wall? An exhalation? An imagining? Many of Henson’s landscapes, too, are structured around generative gaps in composition, through which we can find ourselves imaginatively pulled. In Untitled #22, 2007-09, this is the gap between two stone posts, with the same surface qualities that slide over skin elsewhere in Henson’s work – the longer you look at this space, the wider and stranger it gets. In Untitled #29, 2008-09, the gap is between two cliff faces rising out of an iridescent sea, with light striking them and darkness in their wake. 

These mysterious works – and Henson holds that “it is part of the business of art to make the world strange again” – elicit “real” responses on the inchoate level of affect, as well as intellectually. Henson is interested in the interplay between the high artifice of studio photography and the workings of feeling, both in the production process of his photographs and in the engagement of viewers with his work. Pressing on this idea, he turns to Francis Bacon, to whom he cites a notion that “art is artifice – which of course it is. However, when a powerful vision is combined with a virtuosic command of materials, it can produce a work of compelling authenticity: something that ‘recommends the truth’.” The studio, of course, is never as entirely stable an environment as we might think; though the light and framing might be set, the film chosen, and the development process meticulously carried out over long stretches of time, Henson’s images always rest, inevitably, upon an affective content that can never be entirely manufactured. 

This taut balance between artifice and unaffected emotion also maps an asymmetrical correlation between the particular and the universal. In a recent image, Untitled, 2017-18, one teenager’s fingertips graze another’s shoulders. The boy in the back leans over the figure in front, who gazes down through the fallen ends of her companion’s hair. This is a moment of inquiry between two people, and its deeply felt “realness” – which is also what makes the image as tender as it is – is both built upon and transcends the particular claim that photography has historically made on indexicality. The photograph, as Henson acknowledges, has always to deal with the presumption that it makes towards the factual. But, in this photo and across his work more broadly, Henson aims at a truth that is about more than the simple accuracy with which events are reported. Sure, maybe part of what’s captivating is that this one person was factually leaning into the ear of this other person. However, the proximity held between the two subjects, here, is so hushed and captivating because it indicates some sense – of curiosity? Of trust? Of apprehension? – that is bigger than the gesture which delivers it. Henson isn’t trying, really, to resolve the troubling relationship between the particular and the universal. Rather, he continually, ruthlessly, questions it: “How does one hang on to photography’s essential pre-conditioning, this dumb veracity, this literalness, yet at the same time universalise the subject and suggest the abstract?”

The term “practice” doesn’t sit right with Henson as a description of what he’s doing when he’s making photographs. He isn’t practicing at all, he claims: “life is not a dry run.” As well as an explanation of the emotional spontaneity and affective reality that his works deal with, this statement is a reflection of his attitude towards art-making. He describes himself as “an amateur, in the eighteenth-century sense of the word. You work because it is irresistibly fascinating. Really, all great art occurs as a result of falling in love. The amateur does something for the sheer love of it.”

Perhaps this deeply unbusinesslike approach to art-making correlates to the high regard in which he holds the questions of schoolchildren, whom he teaches about art and his own work from time to time. He’s interested in the unpretentious curiosity with which young viewers approach his pictures as they ask, for example, how he knows when a picture is done. His own childhood experiences, too, still inform the formal and thematic preoccupations of his work. Of his suburban beginnings, Henson speaks fondly; his reflections on his youth seem to be coloured warmly, though his images of it (see Untitled #106, 1985-86, of Glen Waverley) are cold, moody, crepuscular. He remembers “lying in the long grass on the footy oval reading Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy.”

Already, in this memory, is the sense that the here of outer-east Melbourne is also the there of classical antiquity, or of nineteenth-century Russia. Henson’s more recent Roman and Egyptian landscapes can, for example, be read in the context of earlier pictures which took for their subject matter the suburbs of Melbourne, where he grew up. There reads, across the decades through which these landscape images have been developed, a kind of investment in drawing parallels between the ancient and the modern, and the monumental and the apparently mundane, which is revealed as extraordinary through its comparison to its other. Certainly, it is this same impulse from which emerged Henson’s early diptych works eliding between adolescent figures, museum interiors, and classical sculpture – collected now by the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, following a solo show at the Palais Liechtenstein in 1989.

In Henson’s recollection of reading in the long grass of outer-east Melbourne is also audible the second, formal, influence from youth that endures in Henson’s work. More and more, books make up an increasing portion of his output. The debt of influence that Henson owes to literature emerges not only in the choice to produce work that’s available on the page, between bound pieces of card and fabric, but in a direct engagement with poetry in the photo books themselves. The recent The Light Fades but the Gods Remain, for example, includes a printing of Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony.” He comments that “there is no immediately apparent connection between the poem and the pictures, yet for me, they speak of the same things. There might be so little actually stated and yet so much suggested, and it’s just this that can open up a whole world.”

And open up a world we do when we look into this work, and into ourselves as we’re implicated in what we see by our viewership. In the way that the book form asks us to ‘open up’ the images in a more literal, gestural way – turning pages, touching the corners lightly, rifling through the scenes in search of something – it might be an especially apposite way to encounter Henson’s photographs. Something is at work in this work, glimmering more darkly the more we look.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile Issue 54, 2021. 

Bill Henson
1-30 April 2022
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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