artnet Asks: Controversial Photographer Bill Henson

The artist finds inspiration in life, love, nature.

Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons Dylan O'Donnell

Australia-based photographer Bill Henson studied visual arts and design at the Prahran College of Advanced Education under Louis Athol Shmith, head of the photography program at the time. Despite Henson not completing his degree, Shmith showed Henson’s work to Jenny Boddington, inaugural curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, resulting in Henson’s first solo show there in 1975. Since, Henson has exhibited throughout Australia and internationally. His work has been on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Venice Biennale, and the Bilbiothèque Nationale in Paris. Henson’s photography shows moments created most often through bokeh (blurry imagery) and chiaroscuro (contrast of stark light amidst dark tones). He is revered as one of Australia’s most notable contemporary photographers for having both a distinctive visual style and a diverse body of work. Tolarno Galleries will show a solo exhibition of Henson’s work at Paris Photo in November.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
In childhood I never gave the “I want to be an artist” thing a conscious thought—I simply drew, painted and made things out of clay compulsively—that’s not to say melodramatically, but rather that it was a constant and “serious” engagement; at least that’s how I remember it. I wrestled with things and felt more or less elated depending on how successfully I thought I’d been in creating something that I found interesting. As an adolescent I did begin to wonder what was going to happen and how I was going to get through the business of school with its maths, science, and sport. In any case, I just kept making pictures and when they worked, it felt as if they made themselves. It was and remains just so interesting.

Bill Henson, Untitled (2011-12)  Archival inkjet pigment print 127 x 180 cm  Photo: courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Australia.

Bill Henson, Untitled (2011–12)
Archival inkjet pigment print 50 x 70.8 cm
Photo: courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Australia.

What inspires you?
To get straight to the point, beauty. Whatever it is that overtakes reason and causes one to fall in love. I think, if we’re honest, it’s the same for all of us.

Bill Henson, Untitled 1985/86 (1985-86) Archival inkjet pigment print 50.4 x 39.4 in Photo: courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries.

Bill Henson, Untitled 1985/86 (1985–86)
Archival inkjet pigment print 50.4 x 39.4 in
Photo: courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries.

If you could own any work of modern or contemporary art, what would it be?
The sensuous and impossible Cy Twombly—how can such seemingly insubstantial and casual gestures carry the sheer weight of history so beautifully? Perhaps one of his sculptures—Winter’s Morning Luxor or By the Ionian Sea or perhaps one of those Bassano in Teverina baroque-shaped paintings from 1985.

What are you working on at the moment?
New work seems to grow out of old, from what went before. I can say the last few years have seen an increasing concentration on the human body. Whereas in the preceding decade, the face or figure always sat within its surrounding landscape, now the figures seem to need just blackness around them. Although there are still landscapes that interest me, I’m making pictures of the adolescent body just in its space.

Bill Henson, Untitled #12 (2010–11) archival inkjet pigment print 50 x 70.9 in. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

Bill Henson, Untitled #12 (2010–11)
archival inkjet pigment print 50 x 70.9 in.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

When not making art, what do you like to do? 
Hang with family and friends, watch the beauty of the seasons, the changing light, the stuff that all of us know is at the center of our lives.


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