Bill Henson: Untitled

1998/1999/2000
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Bill Henson's photographs in his recent show at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery revisit what is now familiar signature territory for him- a twilight world of deserted suburbs and industrial wastelands and, most recognisable perhaps, a nocturnal landscape of forests and woodlands populated by wrecked cars and naked adolescents. However, in these Type C colour photographs (displayed in two parallel rows) Henson moves away from the large 'cut-screen' composites (exhibited at the 46th Venice Biennale five years ago) that employed the techniques of cubist assemblage and collage and which themselves looked like torn and damaged remnants from the aftermath of some violent or catastrophic event. Instead, the scale of the recent prints is not only reduced but their physical integrity remains intact. So too, in contrast to the baroque complexities and dynamism of the larger pieces, Henson's focus in these works is upon single or paired figures who at times adopt self-consciously classical poses (for example, the slight contrapposto of the young man in #20). Yet if these photographs have a greater sense of intimacy and compositional restraint, the potentially overblown rhetoric characteristic of much of Henson's work remains, while its familiarity, both of iconography and style, makes apparent Henson's at times excessive reliance on semantic shortcuts.

Throughout his work, Henson has drawn heavily upon photography's affective connotations of absence and loss which he has harnessed to a high Romantic, even decadent, sensibility-one that in turn recalls Walter Benjamin's description (in The Origin of German Tragic Theatre) of the melancholic temperament of allegory that 'revives the emptied world so as to take a mysterious pleasure in its sight' and in which 'history lies beneath the eyes of the viewer as a petrified primal landscape '. Benjamin may have claimed a particular connection between allegory and modernity yet, despite the modernist devices of Henson's earlier larger works (the tearing of the print, the blurring of the distinction between photography and collage, etcetera) as well as his recurrent themes of alienation and anomie, his antecedents lie also in the decidedly pre-modernist methods and sensibilities of nineteenth-century British High Art photography (whether the photo-composites of Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson or else Lewis Carrell's fascination with youthful sexuality) . Indeed, not only does one profile {#14) overtly recall the wistful female portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron, but the gender division in Henson's photographs (whereby the young women largely address the viewer while the male subjects do not) also echoes the particular gender asymmetries characteristic of Cameron's work. Such referencing of nineteenth century photography is not unique to Henson, and Tracey Moffatt's Laudanum series (1998) is another recent example. But, while Henson has avoided the somewhat schematic historical citation at work in Laudanum (such as the pastiche of various Gothic genres and the revival of redundant late nineteenth-century printing techniques), his own work also provokes the question as to what underwrites this nostalgia and fin-de-si├Ęcle sensibility.

Henson's photographs are hugely seductive-perhaps irresistibly so-and, once seen, are not readily forgotten. So too, in their resistance to deciphering, they demand to be accepted on their own terms. This seductiveness relates not only to the specifically visual appeal of the photographs themselves (the quality of the printing, the virtuosic use of tonality and contrast, and the sheer physical allure of the prints' surfaces) but entails a process of filtering and abstraction whereby a range of painterly and photographic sources are gathered and reworked, just as any historical specificity is displaced into a mythic space beyond social reference. In this context it is instructive, perhaps, to contrast Henson with another Australian photographer, Carol Jerrems (whose work from the 1970s was shown recently in Complicity at the Australian Centre for Photography) in that, while both have ostensibly dealt with similar themes (suburban alienation, teenagers and their patterns of social interaction, etcetera), their photographic practice is radically different both in terms of its visual aesthetic and in its registering of social relations. If, for Jerrems, the specificity of locale or of stance and gesture were the indices of both the group social identity and individuality of her portrait subjects (whose world was also her own), Henson's young men and women (in their various states of distraction and self-absorption) are never individuals but are instead mere emblems or ciphers.

Henson's photographs present us with an 'emptied' and uncanny world, shaped by a purposive breaching of objects and signs from their conventional meanings and associations, which is both familiar yet strange-or, rather, one that is strangely familiar. As Benjamin writes of the allegorist, 'In his hand the thing becomes something else ... a key to the sphere of hidden knowledge'. But while Henson's is an allegorical vision or a mise-en-scene (and he was a obvious choice for inclusion in the Hitchcock inspired Moral Hallucination show at the Museum of Contemporary Art) that we can readily access on an aesthetic level, it is also one that is necessarily distant to us. Henson's achievement, and his appeal, may well rest upon this juxtaposition, but it is a strategy that entails risks-not least the risk of mannerist repetition- and it remains to be seen how he avoids becoming trapped within his own reverie.