Eva Collins : Photographs and Writing

Words

BILL HENSON
[Oyster Fashion Magazine]

Bill Henson is softly spoken; his photographs are softly toned. But both evoke a sense of drama, introspection and dislocation.

David Malouf, the renowned novelist and poet, refers to Henson as ‘a maker of magic’. Michael Heyward, the editor of a literary magazine, Scripsi, describes his images as, ‘ at once awesomely beautiful and gravely disturbing’.
Henson deftly catches moments of transition – from night to day, from childhood to maturity. His images capture states of uncertainty and reflect the inner torment, while the shadows provide cover for these ambiguities.

Bill Henson is one of Australia’s most distinguished photographic artists. His work is to be found in every major public collection in Australia and overseas, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of NSW and the High Court of Australia, among others.

He spoke to Eva Collins

Q: Your latest book, Lux et Nox, ends with words not images. Your observations possess a penetrating Haiku clarity. Would you like to comment on two of these?

What draws you in, is what slips away

BH: Often one’s deliberations seem to fall so far short of what one senses. We may be acutely sensitive to something yet completely unable to identify or understand it. The true object of our fascination can seem always to be one step ahead of us as if constantly disappearing around a bend in the road, constantly eluding us. Where the work is concerned I’m not sure that I can be much more specific than this.

The pictures are, in a way, obsolete fragments from this on-going process or journey. Of course one can make lists of things that are of interest, in an attempt to identify more clearly the nature of one’s preoccupation but that list only ever gives a general indication of one’s direction and still fails to explain the reasons for one having taken that particular path. I don’t think we end up any closer to really understanding why we feel the way we do. As they say, perhaps if one knew what was driving this sense of curiosity, this sense of longing, there would be no need to pick up a camera.

“The sweet expression, eyes cast down, thoughts turned inward…Such things send us back into a different space, but remarkably it’s always our own.”

BH; The priority of individual experience lies at the centre of any encounter with art – its what you bring to the meeting and the particular way you respond to a work of art that counts. When you look at a picture of a road and it really affects you, it becomes your road. I don’t think that artists are always necessarily more sensitive than other people to their surroundings or to their inner life. What they do have is a need, and to varying degrees, an ability, to articulate their thoughts and feelings visually. And I would say that, not to put too much of a melodramatic slant on it, all the best that occurs in the artistic lives of people derives from that need.

Q: Even though you are such an accomplished artist, do you ever doubt yourself?

BH: Constantly. I have absolutely no personal confidence at all. I do, however, have a tremendously strong conviction about what I think is important in art. I’m always amazed when something works. I’m not surprised when it works, but I am amazed when it does. It sometimes feels as though it had nothing really to do with me or my intentions – as though the work made itself - and this despite the fact that I have applied myself to the work as best I can.

Q: Have you ever been rejected?

BH: I’ve never made much of an effort to find exhibition opportunities or to promote the work myself in the past. I used to flatly refuse to be interviewed – probably should have stuck to that … But it seems that things pretty much happened as a result of other peoples’ interest in the work. I don’t believe I’ve ever asked a gallery for an exhibition -
even from the very first, which was at the National Gallery of Victoria, - when I was nineteen.

Q: Were you thrilled by such an offer?

BH: I was excited, even embarrassed, but it didn’t change my sense of what mattered in the pictures. I don’t think my ego got any bigger as a result, - it probably got smaller - it probably continues to get smaller.

Q; Is this akin to humility?

BH: I don’t know. There are no foregone conclusions in art and therefore one tries to remain open to whatever is there in front of you where the work is concerned; however, out in the world it becomes much harder to inspire confidence in others when one has so many misgivings about the work that one does.

Q: And yet you have managed very well so far.

BH: Yes; but it often feels incongruous – or against the odds.

Q: Looking at your photographs of people, one thinks of the edge of society, the edge of town, the edge of puberty. There is often that sense of being on the brink. There is that mixture of innocence and danger, which is unsettling.

BH: I think that this uncertainty has a sweetness. It tends toward a compulsive malady that I call the ‘impossibly sweet’. It is profoundly contradictory and it’s how I feel about most of the interesting things that happen around us. I’m sure it reflects my own sense of uncertainty.
When I was at school, even though I was reasonably happy I did feel, to some extent, apart from whatever was going on. Perhaps the need - the desire - to create something tangible and physically separate from oneself, out of one’s observations and experience, puts you in some way at the edge of the environment that you inhabit.

Q: Your models have a distant, private look about them. They seem to be absorbed by their feelings, caught mid-thought as it were. They look serene but also troubled. They look natural and hardly seem conscious of the camera.

BH: I’ve always felt that our relationship to photography was conditioned by an underlying sense of loss. That there was always this feeling of ‘otherness’ or ‘elsewhere’ seemed to me perfectly natural and to be largely where the real potential for the medium lay. Trying to understand the nature of that distance seems central to my need to make photographs. A photograph is always as much in the past as it is in the present – they all act as a memento mori. I suppose the apprehension of distance evokes a sense of loss in us – a sense of longing and I think it’s longing that animates contemplation.

Adolescents have this all-pervading sense of uncertainty and this is riveting for me: they are in such a state of transition. They have this sweet, dark, tumultuous sense of who they might be and how the world might be. I find the best way to describe it in the pictures is through stillness, silence and a sense of these people just being.

Q: How much do you tell your models what to do?

BH: In some instances they work very hard – if I’m giving them a tremendous amount of very detailed instruction. But these are very wooden directions – I’m not interested in directing them emotionally in any particular way – acting is not nearly as interesting as just being.

Q: Often your models are nude. When, in your opinion, is sexuality intrusive in photography?

BH: It’s a matter of distance. If there is an unbridgeable gap between the person in the picture and the viewer, the subject in the picture tends to remain untouchable. The critical thing in photography is that distance which allows intimacy without familiarity. I must say though that I also find it pretty wild when one looks at popular culture and sees how graphically violent so much of it is - and it’s absolutely acceptable for kids to just soak it up - and yet any graphic depiction of sexuality is taboo. It’s rather incongruous.

Q: How do the models feel about having posed for you?

BH: It’s reassuring that, where I have kept in contact or met up with people years later, they’ve been pleased to have been involved. People stand in front of the camera – choose to enter a relationship – sometimes working for years without necessarily knowing why they started – just as I’m not entirely sure of why I’m making the pictures. We all understand that it’s a journey of discovery.

Q: You mentioned that you don’t like traveling. Wouldn’t being in a new place intensify the feeling of dislocation which you explore in your photos?

BH: I find it stranger and stranger being here. I don’t feel the need to go anywhere else at the moment. Traveling can be fascinating at times, but it can also be a bore. There are times when it is necessary to stay inside with the door shut – the stress of dealing with unfamiliar territory can have a toxic effect.

Q: Do you spend much time going to exhibitions or films?

BH: There have been so many wonderful films made and so many great exhibitions mounted around the world. In the end it comes down to how far and how thinly you can spread yourself. This current predicament of feeling the need to be well informed across all fronts seems crazy to me. You get everything – down to the depth of a millimeter – it’s pointless. You only have so many hours in each day and so you have to prioritize; you have to filter out those things that are not as interesting for you. I think that sometimes filling your head up constantly with other stuff can stifle your own imaginings, your own thoughts. Where art is concerned, I’ve always been more interested in looking at paintings and listening to music, in reading, than looking at a lot of photography.

Q: What do you think about the contemporary art scene?

BH: I don’t really have an opinion about it. I do however think that photographers should be engaged physically in the production of their own work rather than farming it out to other technicians. Being involved in the making of your own work is important because it’s through this manual manipulation that you come partly to learn what your work is actually about. Its all very well to have a great idea but a work of art has to be a great thing too. So much information comes through the action of our bodies.