En la maison Dedalus – Glass interviews photographer Bill Henson about his latest work

AUSTRALIAN photographer Bill Henson’s work has been featured in the Guggenheim Museum, the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Bibliothèque Nationale. He studied visual arts and design in Australia under Athol Shmith, John Cato and Paul Cox.

Although not finishing his degree Shmith introduced the then 19-year-old Henson (born in 1955) to Jennie Boddington, the Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria where he first exhibited in a solo show in 1975.

Photograph by Bill HensonPhotograph by Bill Henson

His latest book, Particle Mist, published by Stanley Barker, is a collection of his earliest photographic work titled Untitled 1974, Untitled 1975 and several images from an unfinished work started in 1976. Early on he establishes his style of underexposed images often taken during sunrise or sunset with low key lighting to make the image more contrasting

Photograph by Bill Henson   Photograph by Bill Henson

While the majority of photography focuses on clarity, you often distort or reduce tangibility in your images, what is your motivation for this?
As the evidential authority of the medium precedes any individual reading of a photograph, the “prescriptive” dimension of the photo is somewhat of a given. I’m interested in how one might animate the “suggestive” potential of the medium and, to this end, it’s often what goes missing in the shadows or becomes less certain due to a particular depth of field, which introduces uncertainty and leads us to question or if you like causes us to wonder about something.

Beauty seems to be very important to you, the images very calm and collected.
It seems to me that everything runs on attraction – from two molecules in a vacuum all the way up to an episode of Hollywood Housewives. Although we never possess beauty we can long for it and longing is much stronger than love in some ways.

The manner in which it causes us to speculate and to imagine scenarios other than those with which we are familiar consequently adds depth to the imaginative journey the work takes us on. Perhaps the calm and collected feeling comes from a sense a great self-possession in the models and through subtle qualities which indicate a depth of concentration and self absorption.

Photograph by Bill HensonPhotograph by Bill Henson

Your book 1985, although mostly wordless has an introduction. Partical Mist reduces this further down to a title and the acts. Do words detract from your work? Do you fear misinterpretation?
I’m never concerned to impose any particular reading of the work on others. I simply feel that when words do not seem essential one should just leave them out. Rather than “misinterpretation”, I would say that I was happy to leave people to navigate the images through the private labyrinth of their own life’s experience.

Photograph by Bill HensonPhotograph by Bill Henson

Are the images staged, to what degree and does it matter?
I try to control as much as I can both during a shoot and when making a print however I recognise that nature is always ahead of culture and so all that one wants to capture, all which is most compelling and engaging is the very same thing as that which constantly slips away from us. The agent of this thing which slips away from thought is aesthetics. Why is one brush stroke utterly compelling and another of no consequence?

by Justin van Vliet

Particle Mist (£40) is published by Stanley Barker.