If you had to name Australia’s most renowned photographer both here and internationally, it would be Bill Henson. He has had exhibitions in Spain, Switzerland, Israel, France and Vienna.

In America his work is held in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Denver Art Museum and in many other museums too numerous to mention. Most importantly Bill Henson represented Australia at the 46th Venice biennale in 1995.

The National Gallery of Victoria has the largest collection, having acquired over a hundred Henson works. Indeed, it was there that he held his first solo exhibition at the age of nineteen.

However it has been seven years since Bill’s last exhibition in Sydney. The current exhibition is the tenth exhibition of Henson’s work at the Roslyn Oxley9  Gallery.

The last exhibition was controversial in that the police raided it because a member of the public deemed it to be obscene. In the light of overwhelming support and the futility of prosecuting such a ridiculous accusation, the matter was dropped.

Bill Henson, at a preview of his latest work, was asked whether the ‘scandal’ had caused him to modify his work in any way. He replied that in fact the regressive attack caused him to double down on working the way he wished.

In particular Henson stressed the trust he had with his models, whose photos were the subject of the controversy, having worked with some of them for over ten years.

When a member of the audience emphasised the tenderness that his photos evoked, Henson replied that he did not choreographically pose his subjects. Henson shot them on movie film with the models moving around and he then picked out the stills that spoke to him.  

He stressed that his work was entirely non digital and from 35mm film that he then brought to the traditional darkroom where he processed his work.

Henson loved that this process produced a grainy effect which helped to create mystery and blur the distinction between what is real and what is not.

Henson’s models seem to emerge cloud like all the while retaining a subtle palette of colours and light. He renewed his criticism of digital photography in that its colours were either black or white without the subtle greys in between, what is sometimes called the dynamic range in photography manuals.

Furthermore he disliked the disposal mentality of digital photographer, ie they would take one picture, not like it and take another one to get an acceptable shot. This was the antithesis of the way Henson worked in that once he found a still that provoked an emotional response in him, even if it was initially imperfect, he would work on it laboriously until  he had the final product that he had envisioned. Henson added that he worked adding layer upon layer until the work said enough.

Some people believe that this process was intended to give the photos a bronzed look however Henson denied that this was his aim.

Whilst his models seemed to symbolise youth and renewal from a primordial place, his architectural works, mainly shot in Italy,  emphasise decay and neglect. For example his photo of the pantheon in Rome has been manipulated to appear crumbling in a field of weeds with the current statues taken out.

Henson stressed that he did insist that his models slow down and attain a stillness when they could only hear their heartbeats. He hoped that this feeling was transmitted to the viewer. Henson wished to evoke a feeling, quoting the late Robert Hughes that  “feeling leads to meaning”.

Henson believed that his subjects were less important than the subjectivity brought to them.

When asked about his art influencers he nominated Rembrandt. When he was young he had a compulsion to draw including making copies of the great masters seen in art books at the National Gallery of Victoria. Accordingly when he entered art school his portfolio comprised entirely of drawings and paintings.

When moving through the dark, moody portraits it is a shock to stumble across a landscape in bright sunshine but if you examine them closely they too retain the subtlety and nuance of his ambiguous portraits.

When answering questions from the audience he seemed to be an affable , insightful and genial person with a vast knowledge of art history. Encountering the personality behind the images, I could sense  the great compassion and tenderness brought to his work

You have only three works to see this master at the height his powers as this exhibition runs until the 8th June, 2019 at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery , 8 Soudan Lane, Paddington.

All pics by Ben Apfelbaum .