Bill Henson – leading Australian artist
“Henson’s images are carefully choreographed moments of suspenseful drama, veritable symphonies of decadence and beauty, of squalor and opulence, of mysterious darkness and ominous light, of quiet obsession and subversive ecstasy,” wrote Edmund Capon of Bill Henson’s work, during his role as director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is about the man behind all of that majesty. Candide McDonald reports.
In May 2019, Bill Henson held his first exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery, in Sydney, for a very long time. The media liked to make out that it had been eight years. Perhaps they wanted to get it closer to the drama his work caused in 2008. There had been an uproar then about Henson’s use of under-age models and the photographer received the kind of fifteen minutes of fame that no artist really wants. In fact, Henson had simply wound down his showings. After the 2010 show at Roslyn Oxley, there had been another in 2012, one in Tolarno Galleries in New York in 2011, and institutional shows through until 2014. “But – probably pure selfishness – I just got to a point where I felt I just wanted a bit of time, where I didn’t have to think about the next exhibition. And I was in a position to take the time. I just wanted to spend time in my studio and work on the pictures in there,” he explains.
Still pursuing love
Henson’s return to the front line of photography was met with approval. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, Chloé Wolifson gave him perhaps the highest accolade any artists can be given in 2019. She wrote, “Layering light and pigment with a quality and scale alluding to noir cinema or Renaissance painting, Henson causes us to forget the little screen in our hands, just for a moment.” That’s no mean feat in a society that has a short-term memory when it comes to artists and a disdain for age. Henson is 63. It would have to be rewarding for any photographer to know that they are still considered to be one of Australia’s most notable leaders in contemporary photography.
Henson was nineteen when he was given his first solo exhibition. It was held at the National Gallery of Victoria. That is no mean feat either. His work is now held in museums and galleries throughout the world, including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bibliothèque National in Paris, the DG Bank Collection in Frankfurt, the Sammlung Volpinum and the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, and National Gallery of Australia, to name just a few.
For Henson, whose income derives from gallery sales, the shows are marketing tools, but there is an emotional value attached to them. This latest one is no different. Henson admits humbly, “It’s not that the show means a lot to me as such. The fact that people are interested in what I do is amazing to me, and it is something I don’t take for granted. It has always been something that quietly dumbfounds me. None of us is an island; we’re all a product of a place and time, but I’m not consciously anticipating an audience when I’m making my pictures. I’m just lost in my own world and following my own nose, so to speak. So, for people to be interested for their own reasons – and it will be different in every case – and getting something out of the work, is an incredibly fortunate accident.”
A “maker of things”
Henson is equally unassuming about his talent. “I’m not sure what got me into photography in the beginning,” he states when asked. “I drew and painted obsessively as a child. My mother used to tell me I covered square miles of butcher’s paper with coloured pencils and crayons. I was endlessly making things out of clay – I was never interested in doing anything else.” He was accepted into tertiary art college with a painting portfolio, but by then he had become, he admits, completely preoccupied with photography. “All I can say about it is that what I was trying to achieve was falling less short through the medium of photography. Everything falls short, but my photography seemed to be less emphatically a failure than working in paint, even though I’d been able to get into Prahran College with a bunch of paintings I’d done when I was thirteen. I still find painting, both contemporary and historical, and music, and sculpture and poetry and fiction, more compelling and more moving than most photography. I would say that I’m a person who has always made objects, things. It’s just that the things I make happen to be photographs.”
Henson feels that he is a creator first and a photographer second. “You have to be deeply in love with the medium. You have to have this complete love and fascination and lust for the kind of medium you are working in. But it is ultimately a means to an end. If I felt that I could get closer to the things that haunt me or fascinate me by using a lump of clay or a paintbrush, then I would do that,” he says.
The new work that Henson exhibited in May was characteristically Henson. Arts reviewer, Nick Galvin, wrote, “The young, naked models are still there, some posed solo, others in combination in the large-format prints. So too are the mysteriously lush and dark landscapes from locations around Italy and juxtaposed against the human forms. Photographer Bill Henson’s first solo show in Sydney in seven years couldn’t belong to any other artist.”
Unchanged and unwearied
“I don’t think people change below a certain level,” Henson says of the impact that maturity has had on his work. “We all navigate each day as it comes along and the world changes. We’re always changing to an extent, reimagining our situations. As one grows older, one gets a certain sense of proportion or perspective that you can’t possibly have at a younger age, but I don’t think the essential nature of what interested me thirty or forty years ago when I was making photographs and what interests me now has changed that much. I think my work has stayed the same.”
What has changed, although triflingly really, is the way in which Henson works. It had to. “In 2008, the really significant thing that happened to me was that I ran out of analogue paper,” he explains. “This beautiful photographic German paper that I used to develop with chemicals was no longer available.” The company had shut down and it was no longer made. “That was a big deal,” he continues. “I had to make a transition to inkjet printing. I still shoot on negative film, I still use a film camera. None of that has changed, but I had to go on a very steep learning curve that took about a year. And I was thinking at the time if I can no longer make the kind of pictures I want to make, maybe I’ll go back to making things out of clay.” Serendipity stepped in, however, and Henson befriended an old acquaintance, the artist, Les Walkling.
“He had become a technical genius where digital imaging is concerned and he very generously spent the better part of a year in my studio customising the machinery we had to buy, writing software, going in and out of his global think tanks with other techs, and helping me put together the kind of system I needed to make the kind of prints I wanted to make.” Henson made the transition to making his actual prints digitally, but he admits that it was an interesting challenge. “I still use an old-fashioned 35mm SLR camera and shoot old-fashioned negative film, and still process it C-41. I still make contact proofsheets, get out my magnifying glass and a white Chinagraph pencil, and circle the ones I like. It’s like a scene from Blow-Up. But they sit there on my desk for months and sometime for years and then, when I’m ready, I’ll scan the negative I think I am going to need from that shoot.”
Henson is sure that his ambitions around his work are keener now. “I feel more like a kid in sandpit than I did when I was twenty, so the energy that comes back to me through the business of trying to make something reinvigorates me and rekindles my thirst, my hunger, my appetite, my curiosity. In a way, it’s a circular thing. You work hard and you’re absorbed in something. Mostly it’s appalling, but sometimes it’s amazing. When it’s appalling you feel like a fool and it’s all your fault, because, after all, one has complete freedom and total responsibility. However, when the work’s something that I really love, I feel as though it made itself and I’ve just been along for the ride. The appetite and the smell of something you can’t even understand, that apprehension of significance not fully understood, draws you on. Later in life it draws you on with a much greater pull – the sheer weight of accumulated knowledge, the experiences you’ve had. It becomes richer if you’re open to things. And the way that feeds back into the work is that later in life you come to understand certain things. It’s important that what you do makes the world strange again, makes the world mysterious again, because, as Einstein said, mystery is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Do your thing regardless
Henson is also relatively oblivious to changes in the art market. “I don’t spend a lot of time out in the art scene, let alone the art market. I really enjoy gardening and working, going to the gym, and making my work.” He has a particular way of working. “I listen to music and I do that very deliberately. It’s not in the background. I have to find the right thing to listen to and then I’ll play it four hundred times.” He is unperturbed by the fracas of 2008, when police seized key works from his Oxley show after complaints that it contained child pornography. Child protection advocates claimed that Henson’s nude images of a thirteen-year-old girl represented the sexual exploitation of a minor and demanded he be prosecuted. Henson’s defenders disagreed – vehemently. Henson’s models, many of them in their teens, defended the artist vehemently. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared the images to be “absolutely revolting” and without artistic merit. This was a poison arrow. Henson gained the support of many high-profile members of, and institutions in, the artistic community. Ultimately, the NSW Department of Public Prosecutions recommended that no charges be laid against Henson, and the Australian Classification Board gave the images in question a PG rating.
He does, though, have an attitude about censorship. It is unexpectedly fair. “There are interesting ways in which you can view censorship,” he begins, “and I think that people of intelligence understand that a lot of what we talk about in art comes down to taste. People are different. People’s taste varies. People’s interest varies, and so the conversation about what’s acceptable or not acceptable in terms of art has a kind of filter that people have to go through individually.” He adds, “What art does is reinforce the priority of individual experience. It sends you back into yourself, and that’s a tremendously important and valuable thing. We have to remind ourselves that people are different and one of the great aspects of a civilised society is its capacity to accommodate different and opposing points of view.” He is unimpressed by the histrionics that Me Too generated. While recognising that no one should do harm to another, he stresses that the bounds of acceptable behaviour change with time. He sees that the norms of the sixties to the eighties are undergoing a correction, and with every action there’s always a reaction. “It’s physics,” he explains, “and let’s not forget that culture is never outside nature.”
Henson’s conclusion about censorship is fascinating. A true creative, he has a point of view that stands out in the crowd. It makes you stop and think. “Everyone is so concerned with being comfortable. I’m troubled by that. I think that this quest for comfort is undermining or weakening people. I’m not sure that the Me Too thing is all good. Significant parts are, but significant parts are weakening the people who should be getting stronger. I’m someone who sees this as incredibly complex.”
He also has a complex attitude to social media. He appreciates it as a remarkable collection of tools, but feels a certain amount of disdain for what it has done to sociability. He has an Instagram and a Facebook account, neither of which he began or maintains. His Instagram account was begun by someone who wanted to work with him, approached him and offered to run it for him. “Of course, there’s no reason not to have it. I just don’t have the time to run it all,” he says. It’s the same with Facebook. The Bill Henson Facebook fan page was set up by a “bunch of kids”, he recalls. Henson had no idea it existed for three years. Those “kids” now include a senior editor at Penguin Books in New York. “I just don’t have the mental space for it,” Henson admits. “I’m really busy listening to a particular passage of music and staring at the picture I’m trying to make. I’m sure at a practical level the trickle-down effect has been wonderful, with people who might otherwise not see my work having access to it, but it’s not something I’m able to spend time on.”
As for the role that social media has acquired in everyday life, again Henson is wary of the way it has distorted how people interact. “Social media is our own personal white noise to some extent. It’s sending people into a state of perpetual distraction and being constantly in touch isn’t always being meaningfully connected. ‘Where are you?’ ‘In the freezer section at IGA.’ There’s a kind of connectedness which is actually becoming a kind of disconnectedness,” he explains.
Comfortable in one’s skin
Henson feels no difficulty in choosing his favourite work, however. “The most interesting picture to me is the one I’m working on at the time,” he states. “I know that’s a boring answer, but it is always the thing that’s absorbing most of my attention. It’s exciting because I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to pull it off. Maybe it’s going to be amazing, maybe it’s going to be hopeless. That whole ‘could be incredible, but probably won’t be’ is compelling.” He doesn’t feel that he has a great phase, a naïve phase, or a phase he’d rather forget. “Looking back, I have no problems with the work I made when I was nineteen, twenty, or thirty-five. It’s simply what I did then. There’s this kind of crazy fascist revisionism that sometimes takes hold of people where they want to destroy all of the things they did when they were young so they can be seen as someone who sprang fully formed at the age of thirty-three, or whatever, like a goddess from the sea. It’s just stupid. I’m perfectly prepared to live with the work I made when I was younger. But certainly, the thing that I’m trying to get out of my head and onto a piece of paper now is my favourite picture.”
It is incredibly difficult for any artists to remain relevant for four decades. Henson has. He has not bowed to fads or fashions. He has maintained his craft largely in the way that shaped his talent. He has stayed true to his style, the subjects that fascinate him, and his passion for achieving that one amazing image from the many he begins.
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