Bill Henson Online Exhibition by Tolarno Galleries
Like many, renowned photographer Bill Henson spent part of his lockdown tidying up and reorganising his studio. This led him to look through his old contact sheets (positive prints of all the negatives from a roll of film) in an in-depth way – something he hadn’t really had the time to do before. Over a period of 18 months, the artist carefully made his way through hundreds of contact sheets, selected images, scanned and digitally manipulated them.
Thirteen of these never-before-seen photographs are the subject of a new exhibition that opened at Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries on June 26. Now being shown in a virtual viewing room, it’s an exhibition thwarted, ironically, by the very thing that made it a reality: lockdown.
Each work has two dates – for instance, Untitled 2001–2021. The first is when the photograph was captured; the second is when it was printed. It’s a poignant take on the passage of time, and completely befitting an artist like Henson, whose photographs have always encouraged the viewer to think about the concept of time.
Take Untitled 2008–2021, a photograph of a spectacularly cascading waterfall. Water gushes against a deep black backdrop in a way that feels almost otherworldly. Captured from a helicopter hovering just above the water at New Zealand’s brooding Milford Sound, Henson – often considered a master in the use of light and dark – was “interested in the idea of something falling up rather than down … The downdraft from the rotor blades was starting to push the water into these strange shapes and it struck me that they looked rather ghost-like.”
There are, of course, a number of arresting images of Henson’s trademark youthful figures in this show (which have at times been controversial). A boy brings a hand to his lips, seemingly transfixed by something out of frame; a girl glances down at a bare-chested boy sleeping beside her. They’re deep in thought, so much so you can slip into a similarly reflective state while observing them – particularly in the gallery, but also if you’re committed to the online experience.
One photograph was given a wall to itself in the gallery: a side portrait of a young girl, her earlobe and neck adorned with glittering costume jewellery. It’s a previously unseen image, part of one of Henson’s most beloved pieces of work, the Paris Opera Project. In 1990, he was commissioned by the Paris Opera House to produce a series inspired by the music and environment of the opera. Initially Henson took the photographs on-site but found they were too “documentary” for his purposes, so subsequently shot them in his Melbourne studio.