Bill Henson

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Bill Henson Essay by Chloe Byrne. Bill Henson is a very well known Australian photographer. His work has featured in many shows around the world and in Australia. His interesting technique of strong contrasts, subject matter and use of dark tones are common and readily associated with his work. Bill Henson’s work has created great controversy and has a massive impact on society. Bill Henson was born in 1955 in Melbourne, Victoria. This contemporary photographer has exhibited his work in many different locations from the National Gallery of Victoria to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Henson’s work has a number of significant attributes that are reflected in most of his pieces. His reflection and interest in ambiguity and transitions into his work. Dark tones and strong contrasting of light and dark are common in his work. Henson’s subject matter is mainly relationships, relationships between male and female, youth and adulthood, day and night, light and dark and natural and civilisation. The flattened perspective that occurs in his work gives it a sense and feel of abstraction. Henson has had a wide range of major exhibitions. In 1975 he had an exhibition at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria), in 1981 in the Photographers Gallery in London, in 1989 his work featured in the Museum Moderner Kust Palais Liechtenstein, in 1990 Bibliotheque Nationale Paris, in 1993 Tel Aviv Museum of Art and in 2006 the Institute of modern art in Brisbane. Henson has had a successful career as a photographer and contemporary artist and his work is well known and respected. Bill Henson works in the medium of photography. Figures, people and landscapes are a major aspect in Henson’s work. Henson works with dark tones and strong light sources. In Henson’s untitled exhibition he does not try to capture time and space. This ambiguity of not allowing us any assurance of its place in time or space is a product of Henson’s technique in the dark room. Henson uses a method of hand agitation during print development that creates an uneven tone throughout the print. Henson’s use of light creates an eerie un-natural feeling to his work using heavy shadow contrasting with a strong light source. Henson’s early work (1974) echo’s great renaissance artists such as Vemer with the aspects and qualities of an oil painting. Henson’s latest work is working with the technique of ‘cut-screen’ where Henson cuts and then reforms the picture in a colarg type technique. Unlike Henson’s earlier works of black and white, Henson uses colour. On the 22nd of May 2008, one day before the opening at the Rosley Oxley Gallery, of the twenty photographs in Bill Henson’s untitled exhibition twenty four were confiscated by police. This happened because of a series of events following the invitations to his opening night being sent out. The invitations featured one of his photographs showing a naked twelve year old girl. After the initiations were sent out an article was written in the Sydney Morning Herald discriminating the photographs before the exhibition had even opened. The photographs were confiscated because Hetty Johnson, the Executive Director and Founder of Brave Hearts Inc. ) Reported the photographs to the police. These photographs created a lot of controversy in the art world and in society. Many people were offended by Henson’s photography claiming it was child pornography and child abuse as the girl was 12 and not of consensual age. Kevin Rudd said on the 23rd of May that the photographs were ‘revolting’ because the girl was not over 18. Henson’s work had a great effect on society. His work questions the issue of censorship, society’s view and values affecting an artist, freedom of creativity an ability to make artistic statements. It also raises the questions ‘what is art? ’ and ‘who defines it? ’ Henson’s work provoked outrage and controversy. The public was divided by his work, some saying that Henson’s work is art and clearly not pornography. This statement can be backed up by looking at Henson’s previous work. A lot of Henson’s subject matter is of young adults undraped, showing that Henson works with the subject and form of the undraped figure. There is a great contradiction in saying that the use of an undraped child is so outrageous. If you look back to the renaissance many great artists used naked children in their artwork, for example Caravaggio’s ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ features a young boy fully nude. But because this was alone in the medium of oil paint it is not considered pornography. The use of photography makes the subject of a nude child more real and therefore it makes it more offensive. Another contradiction is that it is said that the twelve year old girl was not of the age of consent but almost every night you will see a naked baby on television on a nappy add or in a television show. The statement Bill Henson’s work is trying to get across ( in the use of the undraped girl) is that of vulnerability and innocents. When a person is naked they are at their most vulnerable , they have nothing to hide behind. They cannot be associated with any stereotype, they are stripped of their material positions and are portrayed solely as a naked person. Henson was trying to show the vulnerability and innocents of a child in a beautiful and artistic way. Bill Henson’s work is, from my perspective, beautiful and it is quite obvious that he is not trying to create ’kiddie porn’. He is creating controversy, creating a statement and after all is that not what art is about? The freedom and ability to make a statement, express yourself and create a reaction from the public. In my opinion Bill Henson’s Untitled 2007-2008 was a risky but smart move. Because of the controversy surrounding the photography’s Henson gained a massive amount of publicity and exposure. He got the public arguing, thinking, questioning and reacting and that is what most artists are trying to achieve in their career.

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Bill Henson. (2017, Sep 19). Retrieved February 8, 2023 , from

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