We are all familiar with the work of Bill Henson. His painterly photographs of adolescent figures wandering around moonlit landscapes are among the most distinctive in Australian contemporary art. But for many of us, our familiarity may not stretch back before 2008, when controversy and Henson became inexorably intertwined. The thing is, Bill Henson has been creating these dark, haunting images for much longer than many of us have had an opinion of it. In the wake of more recent controversy (this time in Adelaide) and on the eve of the NGV’s Melbourne Now, Henson is exhibiting a suite of images created almost 30 years ago. He discusses the Untitled 1985/86 collection with us, as well as his process and motivations, which have remained constant throughout the course of his remarkable career.

Max Olijnyk: You took these photos when you were in your early thirties, right?

Bill Henson: I took them around 1985, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time. You grow up wherever you grow up, and in my case it was the suburbs. They surround you and you’re struck by the beauty of it. Gradually I felt an inevitable need to find a visual form for these feelings in relation to the environment I grew up in. I was drunk on the light, on the feeling of these places at dawn and dusk when things were slipping into darkness or coming up out of it.

That non-specific sort of time is consistent throughout a lot of your work.

That transition of light probably has a lot to do with making what’s depicted less certain. By details disappearing into shadows, forms dissolving into darkness, you open up the space in a picture for the imagination. That’s what I find interesting.

Your work evokes memories that are on the darker end of the spectrum. For me, I think about things I haven’t thought about for a long time.

They’re deeper memories, perhaps, without wanting to sound profound with a capital ‘P’. I think when something draws you in, it’s often the thing that slips away from thought that gets your attention. Some of the kids I photograph have a capacity to get this effortlessly. A guy I’m working with at the moment was standing in front of a picture of himself and he said, “I know it’s me and it’s not me.”

The photos of models, are they about specific memories for you? Or are you just setting up that evocative space?

For me, meaning comes from feeling, not the other way round. It’s as though you’re searching for something and you don’t know what it is. Through the process of working, things are revealed to you. Occasionally the turn of a head forms some simple, fundamental truth about being a human being.

That non-conditioned period of early adolescence, is that the in-between area that attracts you?

Well, it’s not that different to talking about dawn or dusk. It’s also a macrocosm of society, because you’re no longer an extension of your mother’s hand; you’re going off into the world to find out who you are. That produces an incredible potential, and of course that’s a potential for things to go well or badly.

They haven’t gone either way yet.

Well, of course the pendulum starts to swing in ever larger arcs as they negotiate life. But definitely I think that adolescence represents this great floating world of potential and uncertainty, shot through with bravura and over-confidence, and miscalculation.

I remember being almost shocked by the physical presence of your work when I saw it in the flesh.

Well, that makes me happy.

That’s a big part of your work, isn’t it, the physical reality of them?

It’s the only part of them, really. How you bring an object out of the realm of imagination and into the physical world, that’s the big interesting journey. Everyone’s walking down the street with their head full of stuff they can’t believe. Everyone can’t believe their own life as it’s unfolding; it’s incredible; but being able to find a form by which to articulate that, that’s the thing. Being able to play the piano so other people feel like they’re in a thunderstorm, that’s the thing.

You recently withdrew from the 2014 Adelaide Biennial over some controversy over your new work. Has the increased scrutiny on your work changed the way you make images?

Not at all. It’s probably five or six years since all that stuff initially blew up for me, and it’s blown up around the world for other people at different times. I feel happier, more excited and more absorbed in what I’m doing than ever. The everyday practicalities of whether an image gets shown or whether the politicians draw up their skirts and run for the Adelaide Hills is really secondary. The world is full of frightened little bogans and it’s just something you don’t think about. When I’m working on my pictures I’m not thinking of anyone else.

You kicked off your exhibiting career in 1975 with a solo show at the NGV. How do you see the climate now for an emerging artist? Is it possible to break through in the way you were able to?

Well, this is not false modesty, but I never really paid any attention to my career. Things just happen. The decision to put my work up at the National Gallery when I was 19 was made by the curator Jenny Boddington and a couple of the board members; a gentleman named Les Gray, and the enthusiasm and generosity of spirit of Athol Shmith and John Cato. I was presented with that one day in class, a fait accompli, like, ‘Guess what? You have a show at the National Gallery!’ I was shocked as anyone else in the class.

The fortunate accident, not to make light of it, of other people being interested in what you do, is absolutely that. I’m very fortunate. It’s hard to give advice, but there is a golden rule in two parts, a bit like an epoxy resin. There’s part A, which is try to be true to yourself, and part B, which is don’t stop working. That’s all there is, that’s it. What history makes of the work, what the art world makes of it, what the politicians make of it, all of that you can’t control unless you compromise one of those things.

Bill Henson Untitled 1985/86 at Tolarno Galleries from November 16 to December 14.

All images courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.