Bill Henson is among the top contemporary artists from Australia who is noted for an edgy and powerful photographic approach both cinematic and painterly. Henson’s mastery of adding prominent contrasts between dark and light is influenced from the great painters of Europe. All in all, he uses the methods of bokeh and chiaroscuro to enliven the forms in his photography. His images are unforgettable, confronting and beautiful. His works are staged representations where by the subjects’ bodies and faces are either shadowed or blurred.
He was born in 1955 and grew up in Melbourne’s suburbs. Henson went to the Prahran College of Advanced Education to study design and visual arts for a year from 1974. The department was headed by Athol Shmith and the lecturers were Paul Cox and John Cato. Although Henson did not complete his diploma, with the help of Shmith he did his first solo exhibition in 1975 at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Until 1980, Henson was working at Margareta Webber’s bookshop that shelved books on visual arts, dance and ballet. When he left this job, he went on a photography expedition to Eastern Europe. For a short while, he was a teacher at Victorian College of the Arts.
Henson’s work has been exhibited in many international and national galleries, including the Venice Biennale; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; The Speed Art Museum in Brisbane; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; London’s Photographers’ Gallery; and more. He aims to exhibit after every two years in Australia and do three overseas shows each year.
Apart from the positive side of his popularity, Bill Henson faced controversies as well. His 2008 show in Sydney at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery was cancelled after invitations from the gallery were sent to people telling them the exhibition includes 13 year old girls’ nude photos. Eight recipients of the mail complained this to the police. A child protection lawyer, Hetty Johnson also complained the police in New South Wales. Moreover, Miranda Devine from Sydney Morning Herald wrote a sarcastic article against Henson which sparked heated discussions over the media about the issue. As per an announcement, a number of pictures portraying nudity were confiscated. The entire situation became a national issue and was addressed to by Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister as revolting photos with no artistic value. On the other hand, Betty Churcher director at the National Gallery of Australia thanked the public prosecutor for not dragging the case to the court. After the issue was dissolved, Niall Lucy a scholar criticized Devine’s responsive article to Henson’s work in Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Down Under, his book.
Another controversy came out in the same year over his visit to select potential model to pose for his art at the St Kilda Park Primary in 2007. The Department of Education launched a complaint against Henson but there was no case since the principal of the school cooperated with the artist and so did the parents of the children who were selected.
Bill Henson is a visionary and an explorer who depicts transitions between civilization and nature, female and male, adulthood and youth. His photographs follow the tradition of romantic painting and literature. Henson’s photos portray sensuality, sexuality, and intimacy. His pictures are silent yet they speak, serene yet striking, and dark yet alluring.