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MnemosyneReview - Mnemosyne
by Bill Henson
Scalo, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 23rd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 34)

Bill Henson was born in 1955 and had his first exhibition of photographs in 1974.  An Australian artist, his work has been rather difficult to find in the USA, at least until the publication of his previous work, Lux et Nox, also published by Scalo.  So there is reason to be very grateful for this retrospective of his work, in a large-format book of about 500 pages, containing 493 photographs.  The collection reveals both a consistency in quality and a diversity of styles and themes in Henson's work, and shows him to be one of the most interesting contemporary photographers.

The book shows selections from different periods in Henson's work, interspersed by reprints of essays by critics and one interview with him.  It is beautifully produced, and while the reproductions of the photographs cannot match the size of the originals (especially of his more recent work, which is typically well over 1 meter wide or high), it is possible to a good sense of his intent.  While it is not possible for me to compare the reproductions with the originals, the colors of the book are rich and the detail is subtle.  While a book can not duplicate the experience of seeing big pictures in an exhibition space (especially since Henson insists the room is kept quite dark) it is the only way that most people will get to see his work (apart from even smaller reproductions available on some websites).  Even the current retrospective major Australian exhibitions of his work will not contain all the images reproduced in this book. 

It is clear that Henson has always prioritized composition and visual beauty, even when his pictures seem to depict pain, despondency and the results of violence.  He has often concentrated on youthful subjects, and in recent years he has tended to depict young naked people who seem desperately unhappy, and console themselves with sex and drugs.  In the context of his other work though, we can speculate that even in these more recent pieces, he has been preoccupied by larger themes.  Despite the sense of "gritty realism" and voyeuristic documentation in previous book Lux et Nox, it is possible to find allusions to the history of art in those photographs, and his connection with high culture and modern art is brought out through examining his earlier work.  It is worth keeping in mind that the title of the book, Mnemosyne, refers to the Greek goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses.  Henson in his interview shows himself to be well versed in modern literature and obviously he is well aware of the history of art and photography.  So in interpreting Henson's work, one aspect that deserves inspection is how his work relates to other art and literature. 

The allusion to high art is especially obvious in the series "Untitled 1983/84" which has several panels of photographs juxtaposing classical painting and ornate architecture or furniture with various images of teens.   In the "Paris Opera Project 1990/91" Henson depicts a number of people dressed up in formal evening wear, young and older, looking as if they are at a concert, interspersed with images from nature, such as clouds and mountains.  In other series, Henson brings to mind more modernist approaches in modern painting.  For example, in "Untitled 1979/80," some of the images are half pictures, torn along one edge and others look as if there is a cut right down the middle of the picture.  In several of "Untitled 1977/87" Henson uses double exposure, doing his juxtaposition of images in one frame.  In "Untitled 1992/93 - Untitled 1996/97," Henson goes to his greatest extreme in making the viewer aware of his manipulation of the image since he cuts out different photographs and tapes them together leaving many odd shaped gaps in the final product.  In interviews, he explains how for all his photography, he spends a great deal of time in the dark room working on the look of his photographs, and this becomes very clear from looking through this collection.  He is acutely aware of the composition of images, and he occasionally forces the viewer to share this awareness and the artist's role in forming the image. 

One question that is unanswered in the book's text is the extent to which the images of people are posed.  Henson's most recent work, such as in Lux et Nox, has an almost documentary feel showing the interactions between drunk and miserable teens at night.  However, looking at his prior work throws into doubt the idea that Henson was an invisible observer taking pictures, since so much of that work is obviously posed.  This issue is significant because nearly all Henson's work raises the question of his relation to his subjects, and less directly, the viewer's relation to them. 

For example, in "Untitled sequence 1977," there are 16 images of a young naked man lying on a floor.  One of the pieces included in the book describes him as masturbating, which goes beyond anything that we see, but several of the pages show his face looking sexual and internally preoccupied.  The pictures are highly personal, but they seem very different from Nan Goldin's friends in sexual situations, for instance, and they make the viewer wonder what is going on between the photographer and the subject.  One can reframe the issue by asking what kind of voyeurism we are being implicated in when looking through Henson's pictures.  Certainly this seems to be a theme that preoccupies Henson himself and focuses on in various series.  In "Untitled sequence 1979," he shows details of crowds -- with no context to show why people are gathered together, although it looks like a busy street corner -- with most people in the frame looking elsewhere, but one person, often in the background, looking directly at the photographer.  When one sees the person in the crowd looking back at one, while other people are oblivious, one gets a sense of connection with that person.  Henson is not taking revealing pictures of ordinary people like Tom Wood, but is engaged in a more abstract or conceptual enterprise.

At the same time, Henson always makes his images engaging and attractive, even when he deliberately counteracts this by cutting up the picture or using double exposure.  He loves people's faces and naked bodies, and nearly all of his pictures project a feeling of sensuality.  All through his career, he has been preoccupied by adolescents, and surely this partly stems from the beauty and promise of youth.  However, much of his work also highlights the suffering and vulnerability that exists before adulthood.  For example, in "Untitled 1983/84" we see young women crying, lying naked, dirty and bleeding, and one young face with staring open eyes that suggests death.  One beautiful picture shows a young person getting ready to shoot up drugs.  All these are interspersed with images of formal beauty from high art.  It is open to the viewer to interpret what Henson intends by this contrast, but it is clear that his real concern is human life rather than inanimate objects.  One possible interpretation would be that Henson is ridiculing the pieces of high art by showing the vastly greater emotional power that comes from the images of vulnerable or hurt youth, but at the same time, he seems to be objectifying the humans by showing them in the same frames as the objects.  This series is perplexing and mysterious, yet the visual pleasure it provides is undeniable. 

"Untitled 1985/86" signaled a return to color photography, continuing his juxtaposition of faces with things.  The faces are mostly of young people, and the things are mostly clouds and buildings.  Most of the pictures are taken at twilight.  The images here are more naturalistic and the use of color is melancholy and even eerie, and invites comparisons with Gregory Crewdson.  While Crewdson completely composes his images and makes them artificially odd, Henson evokes an uncanny feel by more ordinary images carefully composed and contrasted.  This sense of strange beauty is also strong in "Paris Opera Project 1990/91" with Henson clearly working very hard to control the lighting of faces from below, using a bluish tinge and capturing a certain tension in body language. 

Henson's recent preoccupation with emotionally-charged images of naked adolescents has probably brought his work more into public view, but they fit in perfectly well with the rest of his work.  The dark moody sensuality of his pictures is appealing even when they seem to show drunkenness, degradation, and misery, and presumably that is partly his point.  He could portray the same topics in far more shocking and disturbing ways, but he chooses to emphasize texture, light, and arrangement in his compositions.  One might worry that he is aestheticizing and thus trivializing human suffering, or indeed he might even be accused of eroticizing unhappiness.  While such worries cannot be dismissed, it would be simplistic to condemn Henson's work altogether on such grounds.  He is a thoughtful and extremely careful artist, and his pictures are extraordinary subtle.  He always has the option of deflecting such criticisms by arguing that his pictures raise questions for the viewer, and if they disturbing in some ways, then this is at least partly because the viewer is ready to be so disturbed.  One of the advantages of being able to see Henson's work as a whole in Mnemosyne is that this complexity and subtlety becomes especially apparent, and we can see how he has worked to approach some central themes in a variety of ways over the decades.  This is a wonderful book which makes a strong case for including Henson among the most important photographers currently working. 






·        Scalo Publishers

·        Bill Henson at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

·        Pavement Magazine article on Bill Henson

·        Ego Magazine interview with Bill Henson

·        Metapsychology review of Lux et Nox



© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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