Review by Marilyn Brown
Art Gallery of New South Wales
8 January to 3 April 2005
Bill Henson is an artist that uses photography as his medium. The treatment he gives his subjects, in his series, succeeds in creating a carefully composed piece of art, where light, tone, colour, as well as his developmental techniques, all play a part.
He was born in Melbourne in 1955 and had his first solo exhibition in 1975. Today he has collections in galleries across Australia, Europe and The United States of America.
Judy Annear, of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, together with Bill Henson, has chosen 350 Images from dozens of series to present this exhibition.
Henson’s photos, I feel, are designed to make a direct impact on the viewer. I didn’t look at any of his photos and think: “That’s a nice photo!” I was thrown into a thought process straight away, where I was questioning the meaning of each series, quite often coming up with several possibilities.
A clear example of this is the Untitled Sequence 1978 where a portrait of a middle aged man is placed within a series of photos of a boy running. Was this his father, coach, abuser or himself as he is running towards his future? Does he mean to flee from this man; impress him or, in running, forget his childhood to become a man?
This quandary is intentional, as I believe his unique style enhances the image. They were softly focused, sometimes blurred with careful positioning of the subject. This treatment of his photos seems to be common throughout most of his collection, which gives the observer a sense of ambiguity.
The Untitled series in room 3 is another example of Henson’s treatment of his subject matter. This I felt was very confrontational, maybe even shocking for some. The image of a naked prepubescent youth, clearly uncomfortable, the use of lines, tone and contrast in these photos almost allow you to see right through the subject showing his most private inner core. Henson achieves this effect in other photos of youth, without the use of graphic nakedness, and I feel he does this without par.
The series in Room 7 are an example of this. These portraits, combined with the landscapes of dramatic colour and perspective, all combine to give a dramatic feeling to the viewer.
The portraits are reminiscent of Rembrandt or even Caravaggio. The light highlights the faces and the rest of bodies and detail falls into the dark background. The ruby red lips and use of the conspicuous jewellery add to the drama of the pieces. Henson uses chiaroscuro as the painters of the renaissance did, with the same effect.
The skills in creating the collages, specifically in Room 8, are self-evident. Henson’s collages combine many visual effects, which form a subtle, complete story, from the careful choreography of the subjects (guiding the viewers eye around the work) to the construction of the pieces in the darkroom. The torn edges, youths in uncomfortable limbo, between childhood and adulthood, and the backdrop of nature, all play like a symphony orchestra bombarding the senses.
I find myself wanting to expand more on this exhibition, from Henson’s use of windows, black with no reflections, paralleled by the masses of pictures of indifferent crowds possibly representing windows to the soul being empty, as in the faces of the people.
Bill Henson’s work is very thought provoking and whether an individual would be offended by the imagery is beside the point, his pictures make you stop and think, as they still do for me, several days after visiting his exhibition
Art Gallery of New South Wales – Summer Exhibition Pamphlet
Art Gallery of New South Wales – Bill Henson Exhibition Pamphlet
Art Gallery of New South Wales – Exhibition Hand Out
Review of Bill Henson’s Exhibition at AGNSW in 2005.