Bill Henson : 3 Decades of Photography
Russell Degnan

Yesterday I finally [1] got around to visiting the Bill Henson exhibition at the NGV. Henson was born in Melbourne in 1955 and worked here much of his life. Many of his more interesting pieces (to me) depict elements of Melbourne or country Victoria that are familiar, both symbolically and, in some cases, actually. For more information, try Gary Sauer-Thompson, who has written about him in a more scholarly manner than I'll even attempt here, here, and here; also try the Pavement article he linked to.

Displayed over 8 rooms, it is worth spending a bit of time there. The first two rooms are packed with small black and white photographs, from the first decade of Henson's career. I particularly liked the shots of individuals within a crowd. Like much of Henson's later portraiture, and his other works in general, the slight blurring makes the people seem out of place within the non-descript masses. If you were inclined, you could medidate on length on them, but, as I said, it is a big exhibition.

Except for a couple of rooms I wasn't overly enamored of, the remainder of the exhibition consisted of two types of work. The first: dark, almost entirely black, photographs such as the Paris Opera Project at right where people sit intent on something out of frame; and of adolescents, equally detached from the suburban lights often depicted behind -- the latter, by far his most controversial, and most commented on works.

Annie Leibowitz (I think) once commented that the art of a good photo is catching people in an off-moment, when their true personality can shine through. Henson seems to photograph people from the shadows, without their knowing, enhancing that voyeuristic element, but catching the moment in the process.

The second type of photograph, generally next to the first, with no seeming connection are the landscapes. Sometimes, as in the 'cut screens' from 1995, the two mix together. But it creates a surreal effect. For some reason, the writhing naked bodies, monumental clouds and distortions of depth reminded me of Michelangelo paintings. Once again, I think they would reward a closer study than I gave them.

In the Pavement article they comment that, "we glimpse into his magical world - a distant world of romance and exquisite beauty which the artist seems to somehow have dreamt rather than visited"; for me, it was the opposite. The landcapes are familiar and local, reminding me of Melbourne and the country areas they were taken, and no other place. In part, it is because of images like the above, of the rail-crossing on the Upfield line on Park St.; familiar because I have crossed it a thousand times and more to go to the cricket ground beyond, or of the Hazelwood power station whose polluting stacks and surrounding power lines remind me of my parents' home.

Others are symbolic, such as this railway line, or this bridge. There are a thousand places they could be, but each reminds me of other experiences at home: of long, silent car trips at night in the country where nothing but a hundred metres of road and reflective lights can be discerned; of walking home through seemingly deserted suburbs as the sun sets over telephone poles and railway lines; of country mornings; and of that very special light.

The combination of lonely suburban landscapes with the light is what makes Henson's work unique to Melbourne. Only Melbourne skies seem to combine that bright evening sun with the dense clouds that could spell a dozen different weather events. And Henson captures them beautifully, letting them do the work of providing colour in the otherwise grey city.

Not surprisingly, during those eight months a year when the daytime sun is too bright to get good photos I do the same thing. In general, being attached to the inner city I aim to silhouette buildings, but looking through my collection there is a few of those suburban moments, and they are qually as bleak and colourful as those of Henson.

Enjoy, the last picture is taken roughly 50 metres from Henson's above. The exhibition is on until July 10th, at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV. On the last night, July 9th, the gallery is open until midnight. In all likelihood I will go again then.

[1] I say 'finally' because, even though I can claim to have been a little busy at times since it opened on 23rd April, I was free enough to visit the gallery on a half dozen other occasions to do nothing more than read in the members' lounge.

Finer Things 19th June, 2005 16:46:12   [#]