PRINT February 2002


UNTIL RECENTLY, being an American admirer of the photographer Bill Henson was a lonely and rather painstaking chore. Apart from a small survey of his work at the Denver Art Museum in 1990 and a few photographs included in a 1984 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibition of Australian art, he has been almost impossible to find in the United States, less unknown than antiknown—a sub-subcult figure even within circles devoted to contemporary photography. Given that his work has been a staple of the European art world since 1981 and that it occupied an entire pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale, Henson's invisibility is bizarre enough. But when you consider that his photographs of the '80s and '90s predict and arguably outclass much of the personal, edgy portraiture currently in fashion and ubiquitous in galleries, you have to wonder (or at least I do) whether Henson's effect on contemporary art isn't much larger than his reputation in the States reflects.

My own discovery of the forty-six-year-old Australian photographer was a weird stroke of luck. While house-sitting for an art-critic friend in the late ‘80s, I fished a thin catalogue of Henson's work from the shelves of art books and gave it a scan. At that time, auteurish, confrontational photographers with a taste for the fucked-up and taboo were near the center of the critical dialogue, as well as the hippest things going. Not only did the dozen or so images in Henson's catalogue hold their own against the work of better-known artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and Bernard Faucon in terms of their refined transgressiveness; but just as interestingly, their plush, cinematographic look and romantic, almost melodramatic tone had a radically old-fashioned gorgeousness that raised fascinating questions about the strengths and limitations of his contemporaries’ lower-key, sketchier—or, in Mapplethorpe's case, serenely rigid—styles.

Just prior to the appearance of that catalogue, a permanent realignment had taken place in Henson's work. In the '70s and early '80s he was known for his black-and-white, mock-candid, quasi daguerreotype images of self-absorbed individuals lost in crowds or striking solitary expressive poses in gloom-shrouded voids. In the mid-'80s he began to produce color photographs focused almost exclusively on introverted, compellingly beautiful teenage outsiders and the abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and deserted back roads that formed their turf. The catalogue featured a then-fresh series of diptychs and triptychs that juxtaposed portraits of naked, dirt-smudged teens looking almost like coal miners with images depicting the interiors of palatial homes filled with antiques and old master-ish paintings. The teens appeared to be addicts, prostitutes, and runaways snapped at moments of intense self-mourning. Unlike the subjects in Clark's or Goldin's similarly populated work, Henson's figures were approached with such unreserved empathy and preserved with such an artfully impersonal, elegant visual luster that they became strangely interchangeable with their lavish architectural counterparts. The dichotomy between luxurious empty decors and undressed tormented characters was over the top, to be sure. Yet there was a purity of intention that turned these heavy-handed gestures into acts of moving, even desperate complicity, the way an opera's rigorously expelled emotion can turn its overstated musical phrasings into profound instruments.

The experience of being haunted by reproductions of contemporary artworks, with no real hope of comparing them to the originals, or investigating the work's context, or having even a small library of criticism against which to check one's opinions, constitutes an odd and not unpowerful dilemma—one that living in the art-importing center of the world normally prevents. In 1995, there was a rare Henson sighting in the form of another catalogue for the photographer's aforementioned Australian pavilion exhibit in Venice. By then, his work had phased into something more sexually explicit and emotionally diffuse. In place of the multipanel photographs from the ‘80s there were autonomous, single-frame images containing pictures, violently cut-up and then collaged, of young, pale, faceless bodies fucking, sometimes in large groups, in dark, apparently cavernous locales. It was as if the orgy in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point had gone on past the point of exhaustion and into some posterotic realm where sex was the only cure for unquenchable loneliness. Again, as in Henson's almost too blatant parallel between the superficial spoils of the privileged and the ruined internal lives of the young and disenfranchised,his aggressive cuts and reassemblages bordered dangerously on a dumbass, obvious way of signifying his subjects’ interpersonal agonies; yet some depth of understanding and level of finesse at which the reproductions could only hint left an almost addictive longing to search out these pictures and deconstruct their effect.

Despite the Biennale exposure, it would be another six years before I would see Henson's work in America. And by the time he had his long-delayed solo gallery show in 1999 at Karyn Lovegrove in Los Angeles, the experiments with collage and multipaneling had given way to large framed photographs that engaged even more unobtrusively with the psyches of his young subjects. In this recent work, boys and girls stand, sit, and lounge around alone or in seemingly romantic couplings, their averted faces revealing emotions so deep, mixed-up, and masked in achy casualness that one searches the photographs' compositions and patina for the aesthetic system that makes such intimacy possible. What becomes apparent when you see Henson's work in person is the importance of the almost pitch-black darkness that, in whatever formal context he has devised over the years, always cloaks his forlorn, defiantly unneedy subjects, giving their run-down urban environments the look of remote desert outposts. It's a black that seems both to be caked on the surface of the photographs, like tar or centuries of soot, and to recede infinitely into the background. It looks as solid as lead, a physical threat to the teens it blankets, and at the same time it's as if the blackness were exuded by their bodies, forming a kind of paranormal manifestation of some feeling too intense and guarded to register in any other fashion. In its own peculiar way, Henson's black is as unique an achievement as, say, Robert Ryrnan's white. It gives the similar impression of an idea refined to a point of such complexity that it can only be communicated through a suggestion of its absence. Were it not for Henson's primary, almost devotional need to elicit empathy for his troubled human subjects, there's a feeling that nothing would prevent that black from completely absorbing his attention and extinguishing the work.

Bill Henson's photography is far too reclusive within the world of its own concerns to fit comfortably into the kinds of categories that make a writer's job easy. Characterizing it as a forebear of the new portraiture practiced by younger artists like Anna Gaskell, Tracey Moffatt, and Collier Schorr is helpful in distinguishing its more forceful, less attenuated pursuit of emotional truth, just as viewing it in light of Henson's transgressive contemporaries' work puts a useful emphasis on the unabashed classicism and painterliness of his style. While these associations flatter him and create a reasonable introduction to his work, the map they form gives only the vaguest directions into the matter of Henson's achievement, which lies not so much in the twist he gives to the subject of disenfranchised youth but in the almost premodern beauty he conjures from such a familiar and clinically post-postmodern source.

Dennis Cooper's sixth novel, My Loose Thread, is forthcoming from Canongate Books this May.