Bill Henson at the Opera

Bill Henson at the Opera


went to see a few of the short films at the Tribeca Film Festival this
weekend, and was so struck by some of the imagery that it stuck in my
head for hours afterwards. I always remember images more than narrative.

The seven shorts we saw were all centered on themes of coming-of-age, and the morning after, I felt compelled to pull out Mnemosyne,
Bill Henson’s 2005 definitive retrospective book from Scalo. This is
perhaps my most prized photo book of all; I discovered his portraits of
adolescents adrift in the night while a PE at, and was
absolutely transfixed. Henson is Australian, and his catalog is deep;
included in this book are projects that span twenty years, starting in
the mid-seventies, including a project on ballet, body and nude
portraits, photographs of street-crowds, Baroque
Triptychs, pictures taken
in the Australian suburbs and Egypt, Los Angeles and
New York nightscapes, and his famous cut-out collages shown
at the centenary Venice Biennale in 1995.

But this time, it was the magical compositions of Henson’s Paris Opera Project
from 1990-91 that grabbed me. I can’t quite understand how he was able
to make these images; the lighting is simply stunning, and the poses as
lyrical as it gets. I did a little hunting around, and found an interview by Dominic Sidhu with Henson at EGO Magazine that answers some of my questions. The most topical:

The figures seem darkened or rather that they are moving in and out of imposed darkness. How do you achieve your effect?

I always shoot on negative film because it has potential for far
greater extremes in lighting situations. And also, negative film is
designed to be half the process, the second half being the making of
the print. More often than not, I make test prints and let them sit
around in a kind of semi-finished state. Gradually, my ideas start to
shift as to what this image could be about and how I should modulate it
formally and technically. It is quite a lengthy process. I go into the
darkroom, change the density of some areas, or maybe change the
emphasis between various elements within the picture, and push it

The exhibition prints don’t look anything like the original negative
that came out of the camera. My work is all done in the traditional
manner in the darkroom; there’s no digital technology in there mainly
because I do not find it useful for my work.

With the Paris Opera House series, you spoke about a universal primal reaction to music that is beyond class distinctions.
What I was interested in terms of Paris Opera series was that whole
strange business of finding oneself with a whole lot of other people
gathered in a darkened space, such as the opera, awaiting some special
event. There is something quite magical about it. I’ve always found
that people sitting in the dark just waiting for something is the most
haunting sort of experience. It seemed to me it was a common
experience, a universal thing that everyone feels, really, at some
point or another.

Your teenage subjects seem to exist outside of society in an almost hypnotic state.
The reason I like working with teenagers is because they represent a
kind of breach between the dimensions that people cross through. The
classical root of the word “adolescence” means to grow towards
something. I am fascinated with that interval, that sort of highly
ambiguous and uncertain period where you have an exponential growth of
experience and knowledge, but also a kind of tenuous grasp on the
certainties of adult life.

There is a kind of removal in your pictures. It’s as if the emptiness
in the photograph, the disappearance of detail, and the figure within
in it become the focus of the photograph rather than the subject

Well, putting it in other words, the photograph has to suggest, not
prescribe. Any work of art needs to do that. From my point of view, art
is what almost goes missing in the shadows. It is what is not clearly
delineated but, in fact, just suggested. Rather than the clearly
described surface detail of a highlight of skin, or the surface of a
tree or something, it’s when the light slides off into a sort of half
shadow and darkness. It is the way in which you somehow have something,
but do not have it, that offers the greatest potential.




See a wide selection of Henson imagery here.

And see some of the Tribeca shorts online, here.

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There are 51 comments for this article
  1. annon at 1:16 pm

    Thank you for that. It’s funny, but my work resembles his quite a lot at times, but I only recently became aware of him. It was love at first site.

  2. anon at 1:21 am

    Wait. Your work looks like his? Or his work looks like yours? And you fell in love with it? You must really love your own work! Sorry. Just thought it was a bit of an odd comment to leave on an page of an artist’s work.

  3. tucker at 4:36 am

    wow… wonderful shots im a little taken back. I go to the Art Institute of Chicago and i see alot of photo majors and i have yet to see anything this raw. I love the colors on the pale skin of the women. I had to drag a cupel of these right away onto my computer 🙂 keep up the good work i am intrested to see more of your stuff and see how it holds up against this.

  4. samuraiblog at 5:33 am

    I can not believe someone would look at this work and sneer upon it’s “blurriness” or “underexposure”. Every detail looks intentional, and feels organic. This was a skilled photographer (and process manipulator, apparently…) who is years beyond the basics of underexposure and bad focus. However, if it was a joke, then, funny, kinda… but still fuck you. Sam

  5. Kye Lewis at 6:00 am

    Fairly nice work… I’m not a fan of the latter ones (21, 10, 10, 6), and I’d like 2 but the blur, no matter how intentional, hurts my eyes because I have nowhere to focus on it. But the earlier ones I love, especially 17, the contrast of young and old makes it IMHO.

  6. RBX at 7:49 am

    This is awful. I’ve seen bad photography before but I’m so bored by these it’s untrue. Please do better in future.

  7. Anonymous at 9:39 am

    These aren’t that good. Most of the models aren’t believable in the least which ruins many of the shots. Do people really get that serious and emotional about an opera? I would tend to think not. Further, what’s so great about dark, blurry images that nearly hurt your eyes to view. Oh, that’s right these images are only “suggestions,” not complete images. Please.

  8. Erik at 9:50 am

    There is a kernel of a good idea here, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. I see nothing intentional in the out of focus shots and generally poor composition. The problem as I see it is the shots exist somewhere between found and intentional, but it’s too intentional to be appealing for its naturalism and it’s too accidental to be strightforwardly visually appealing! It’s confusing precisely because it doesn’t have anything to set it apart artistically from an casual photograph by an amateur. Also, the models’ expressions don’t come across as authentic to me, which hurts the effect even more. I concur though that the figures penetrating out of the darkness, the juxtaposition of youth and elegant dress of an adult, the pale cast on the skin and the attempt at found composition are all compelling, and I could see this being absolutely fantastic if a little more care was taken toward balance of intentional and accidental and the choice of shots was more selective. But even then, I’ve seen this done better before already.

  9. Phil Urich at 10:19 am

    I’ve never understood the obsession with “proper” composition; strikes me as a style of obsessive-compulsiveness. If I was to be critical I’d probably agree largely with Erik, but most of the other negative comments seem to be so petty and small-minded about it that I have to be positive. Plus, regardless, these photos and the linked-to others of his are easily interesting enough that, whatever their faults may be, I’m glad to have been introduced to them.

  10. Thad at 10:41 am

    I really wish that the out of focus one with the little girl with the hand on her shoulder, that the jewelery she was wearing would be super sharp with everything else blurred the way that it is. Haha how do you like that sentence structure..

  11. Joe Ventura at 12:01 pm

    Yes please more photos of snotty rich jewel laden people at an opera, not watching it and looking miserable for being there!! Can we get pictures of people driving by the gas station not believing the price of gas went up 6 cents since they left for work that morning. Now that’s emotion you need to capture!! Then let’s get a picture of all the Obama voters looking at the TV in November when it says McCain WINS!! There is some irony that someone should catch on film!!

  12. Scott at 12:24 pm

    Funny, there are some mean and petty people in this world. Why would you call this work amateurish or terrible, even if it were!? I bet you $100 you wouldn’t be brave enough to say that to the artist’s face! It’s nice to be a jerk when you’re sitting in your pajamas at home. Get a life!

  13. tmccool at 12:43 pm

    A lot of people here seem to have a very shallow view about what art can be. If you restrict your idea of what makes a “good photograph” to a very specific formula, as in must be focused, traditional composition, rule of thirds, etc., etc., you will shut yourself off from works that can still be beautiful in less conventional ways. To Erik, it doesn’t matter whether you “see” his technique as intentional or not; what matters is whether the photographer intentionally shot his subject in a certain way, and if he did so, that is his artistic choice. However, your reaction is obviously also your choice. I find it interesting that in the rush to criticize his technique or the photos themselves, no one seems to care about the motivation to create such art. The interviewer asks about the universal primal reaction to music that transcends class, yet fails to recognize the lack of class diversity inherent in a setting like the Paris Opera House. This would be a more interesting point for discussion rather than the absurd “the blurriness hurts my eyes.” Maybe go see your eye doctor, then come back to the internet.

  14. Anonymous at 2:41 pm

    @Scott So, you would rather we be dishonest and say that the photos are good when we feel otherwise? That seems a bit one-sided and contrary to the idea that art is subjective. While it may not be a comfortable situation, I wouldn’t have any problem telling the artist I don’t care for his work if that’s the case. At the same time, the Internet can be beautiful facilitator of opinion no matter how unwelcome that opinion is. It is those that can’t handle the opinion of others that need to “get a life.”

  15. Anonymous at 2:52 pm

    @tmccool I don’t think Erik is saying that art must conform to a specific formula. That would be counterintuitive to the meaning of the word “art.” I find it interesting that you haven’t come to the realization that people are rushing to criticize because there is something to criticize. Are you saying those that don’t care for these photos have a personal grudge against the artist? What would be the motive of some who has “rushed to criticize?” Maybe they simply don’t like the pictures. And, if these pictures don’t bother your eyes, maybe you should be the one to see the eye doctor because it is normal for your eyes to become irritated when they try to focus in on something that will never come into focus.

  16. at 9:48 pm

    What the FUCK. Was this article posted on Digg? Where did all these morons come from? Jesus Christ. This is work by a master of conceptual photography, and not “captures” or “shots”, but images, ART. I’d rather you disable comments than have these Flickr fiends stinking up the place.

  17. matthew s at 12:16 pm

    it is amazing to me how so many of the people commenting on this don’t seem to know Bill Henson’s work at all. it’s not like he is someone who just picked up a camera. he has made work like this for a long time and owns this style. these photographs are from the early nineties not yesterday. work he did with the teenagers hanging out is even more out of focus and blurry and they are even better. I like these. he owns the style period.

  18. jon at 9:16 am

    The writer of this piece may find it ironic (and revelationary) that Bill Henson as of this moment has had his latest ‘exhibition’ of suggestive adolescent nude teen girls pulled and is facing possible arrest in Sydney

  19. anon at 3:23 pm

    Oh, it’s him again. The guy that thinks that every teenager that is sexually mature should be reproducing before their DNA starts to degrade, thereby creating a future population of healthy, strong people with little DNA degradation. He seems to be everywhere these days, preaching that the “natural order” of things is to allow adolescents to reproduce. In the US we have the “yearning for zion” folks and others who think that this is a good way to live. The constant focus on “adolescence” is boring and the story’s along with that are also boring. Understanding or trying to direct “Adolescence” is like trying to nail jello to the wall – say a lot of parents who have experienced it. The photographs here on this page are beautiful and the processing is very skillful. The stories seem to be manufactured to create buzz, which also creates sales. As for the woman in Australia who allowed her daughter to pose for him – sadly, sales might be her bottom line also, or just simply keeping her studio open.

  20. Gregory at 4:03 pm

    He is a pro-pedophile icon now, just goes to show, he was pitching for a Vatican ceiling, they were not up for bare-breasted 13 year olds, and so, well, I think his LA and NYC visiting capability has hit a brick wall. There is always Cambodia I suppose.

  21. Tate at 12:45 pm

    “it is amazing to me how so many of the people commenting on this don’t seem to know Bill Henson’s work at all.” Hundreds of major galleries around the world have banned Henson’s child erotica fetish material. I think his child porn market is essentially confined to Oz. That says a lot about how Australia needs to take a look at itself, Oz, Japan, Cambodia Yeah, he’s a big star, in some places, like Gary Glitter. It is the countries that accept him, that make the rest of us normal.

  22. Joe Anonymous at 2:42 pm

    The facial portraits are AMAZING! You can bet they were entirely candid and reveal more about their subjects than the subjects wanted revealed… I didn’t think too much of the shot with just the hands –scratch that. THE FACES WERE AMAZING! I am a former photojournalist who shot 35mm Nikons for years in addition to playing violin, being a server in upscale restaurants and whatever else would make me an honest living.

  23. mrtoll at 11:47 pm

    STReet+poeMS Note:{ON}=”1″bill+henson”!!! {A}millennia{of}art=innovation{&}+{WE}end{up} >still>> “will”make{U}pervertedly=RICH{&}famou$!!!!! ^Little^GIRLS”dressed=down {4}De=world{2}-[c]!!! >>Pornkeep<selling!!!! +{&}+{u}will*still*”NEVER{b=able}+{2}+afford:affordable+ billie+henson!!!!!

  24. J at 4:02 am

    RBX- I’m inclined to believe that there are alot more people in the world who would find Henson’s work evocative and contemplative. You obviously lack in your experiences in photography, as you seem to be very closed minded on his approach to his work. Henson is a photography God. Sure, his work has caused controversy for his approaches and the underlying, hidden meanings he portrays; but that is art, is it not? Art involves controversy; as art involves pushing the boundaries. Alot of you appear to be too inclined and dehumanised from the media; but if you were to do more research into Henson’s work, and truly understand the situation that occured in Sydney and Albury; I’m sure a slightly different opinion may possibly unfolded from your presently closed minds. Look around you, the world is full of photography that will cause controversy. Henson’s work is not even close to the confronting images I have seen in the art world. Paris Opera Project is by far one of his best works.

  25. laptop622 at 3:30 am

    Oh, it’s him again. The guy that thinks that every teenager that is sexually mature should be reproducing before their DNA starts to degrade, thereby creating a future population of healthy, strong people with little DNA degradation. He seems to be everywhere these days, preaching that the “natural order” of things is to allow adolescents to reproduce. In the US we have the “yearning for zion” folks and others who think that this is a good way to live.

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