Photography

Bill Henson Revisits Suburbia, Looking For Home

The photographer's latest exhibition is a eulogy for his lost childhood.
August 29, 2019, 5:18am
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Bill Henson's photography illuminates that juvenile longing for dark places. One of Australia's most celebrated photographers, Bill Henson's work is a painterly meditation on adolescence, transition and limbo. Last month, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Monash Gallery of Art, he was asked to revisit the suburb of his childhood, Glen Waverley, and I was asked to interview him.

“Bill’s mother recently passed away, so he was forced to come back to this area and figure out what he wanted to do with his mother’s home,” explains curator Pippa Milne, as she tours a solemn crowd through the exhibition, “'In the new works, it is as though the sun is sinking on an empire that humanity has abandoned.”

Bill Henson

In this new exhibition, titled The light fades but the Gods remain, Henson draws on photographs from his “suburban series” or Untitled ‘85/86, where he presented images of Glen Waverley beside ancient Egyptian monuments. But the most striking elements of this exhibition are the most recent photographs, images that bring to life Glen Waverley as he experiences it today—a ripple of tire tracks on a dirt road, a lonely cloud over a hill, and an abandoned chair in a forest.

Henson’s vantage point, in the new landscape images, feels like a hunter trekking through the wasteland of his memory—piecing together remnants that illustrate a dreamscape he calls home.

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I sat down with the artist, to talk about how his work has come full circle.

VICE: When you were growing up, what was meaningful to you about Glen Waverley?
Bill Henson: I think all kids respond to things around them. You’d wake up in the morning and think let’s go, like a little dog with its tail wagging. There was a hunger for experience. Playing in the forest, running down the road and jumping in the pond. It's a bit different to what kids do these days, I think.

For me it was the beauty of the landscape, it was semi-rural. There were orchards, there were remnant gum forests, most of the roads were unmade dirt roads. I’m painting a bucolic picture but that’s how it seemed to me. I’d be wandering down the street and there’d be a dusty laneway, the moon would be coming up over the orchards and I’m sounding like Walt Whitman but that was the landscape.

Bill Henson suburbia

Is that what inspired the initial collection back in the 80s—Untitled 85/86?
I was thinking about how to photograph the suburbs because I never had that middle-class Lamborghini-socialist disdain for my suburban upbringing. Almost everyone in Australia grew up in the suburbs. As people get older they move away from the suburbs, it’s all about being groovy and drinking coffee or whatever. I never had that reaction to the suburbs because I always found it so beautiful. Watching the changing seasons and the weather across this landscape, having your body remember the old orchards and what the topography of the land was like beneath the modern estates. When I look at a rolling hill around here, I can still feel the landscape of the past.

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What does “home” mean to you?
John Berger, in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, says “Home is at the heart of the real.” Everyone carries their childhood landscape, and their childhood memories, around inside them for the rest of their lives. And it becomes a part of this interior world, the inner home of each person and of course it’s unique to them. So it looks different. I came to this realisation in this particular group of pictures, after revisiting this part of the world where I grew up 50 or 60 years ago.

In the end I thought I want to do something impossible. When I look into art history, things which defy belief—when you stand in front of a painting by Rembrandt or whoever—there’s a gathering shock that someone has been able to bring this into the physical, a world where you and I can stand in front of it. A gathering sense of disbelief because of the unlikeliness of that. I wanted to photograph something now, that ceased to exist 50 years ago. I’ve wanted to do something that was impossible. Take my camera and capture something that no longer exists in the physical world.

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It seems to me there's something almost apocalyptic about that.
For me, it’s not so much apocalyptic but certainly it’s a lost domain. But you could say that about childhood, it’s a collective lost domain. It’s not really lost because we carry the memories with us and it might make us into what we become when we grow older. But because it’s photography, I had to take the camera somewhere and point it at something. People come here and look at these pictures and think, “Glen Waverley? It doesn’t look like Monash to us, there’s no six lane highways and high-rise buildings.” But these were all taken within a kilometre of this gallery.

Bill Henson

Do you always remember things in images?
I was always a daydreamer. I would always be looking up at the clouds and the trees. Just watching the wind blow through. I was drunk on the beauty of it. I drew and painted obsessively as a kid, and my mum would say I would cover square miles of butchers paper with crayons. I wasn’t really interested in playing sports. A dark cloud pushing through the sky, making the landscape collapse into shadows. When I was four or five, I was riveted by all of that.

Were those drawings as dark or chiaroscuro as the photographs now?
They probably were. When I was a teenager, I’d be looking at drawings and etchings by Rembrandt. The boggy marshy landscape of seventeenth century Holland. And I was wandering around the floodplains of the local Dandenong creek. The two things intermingled in my imagination.

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And where does Ancient Egypt fit in?
I don’t know where exactly it came from but I do know that one of the first books I ever bought with my pocket money was a little thing by Leonard Cottrell called The Secrets of Tutankhamun’s Tomb. I would’ve been maybe nine or 10.

Egyptology is a peculiar obsession for teenage boys, a lot of kids are interested in it. The architecture is incredibly beautiful and the sculpture is unbelievable. There’s something about it, it’s like a closed system, a closed circle. It’s fixed. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The afterlife is in the west, rebirth in the east. It’s a system of looking at the world. I think ultimately, it was visually fascinating for me to look at.

Bill Henson

How does that mystery fit into suburban Australia?
I went back to the landscape where I grew up, the housing estates had come through, there were tiled roofs and triple fronted brick veneers. The main roads went from being single lane tar roads to six lanes. I went back to it with the understanding that I could only photograph it as a dreamscape. It’s not a landscape, it's dreamscape.

The Egyptian stuff started to come back into my head and I thought these two things have an equivalence. It’s not a contrast, putting a suburban landscape next to an Egyptian temple. The difference is obvious. What’s interesting is the thing that connects them. This humanity. This sense of the world and how people have created this space in which they live. It’s possible to create images with the same emotional weight and the same strange mystery.

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Years later, David Malouf was looking at these pictures and he said, “it’s really strange, it’s as though Egypt and the Australian suburbs are seen from an equal distance or an equal closeness.”

Bill Henson Glen Waverley

When I was walking through this gallery, it felt like a self-portrait in a way.
All the work that the artist is making is inevitably a self-portrait. Even with the young models that I work with, I’m photographing aspects of my own interior world. And I think, what fascinates me in a lot of pictures is the capacity to contain both masculine and feminine qualities. So you look at a really great portrait and somehow it has the full breadth of humanity, somehow it contains all that complexity of being human.

Working with people that are young adolescents, it’s quite compelling to draw that out because they are to some extent androgynous. Their sense of gender is fluid and developing, so that is a broad spectrum of potential. A potential for things to go well or badly. They are the microcosm which most effectively suggests the macrocosm. This floating world of uncertainty that fluctuates between bravado and insecurity, knowledge and naivety.

Are there any memories from you adolescence, where you saw that moment unfold? The moment you’re trying to recreate in images?
I think that happens all the time. It can be a gesture or an act that they carry out. It can be a subtle aspect of their demeanour. An aspect of their physiology. The look of their body or face. It’s something that is powerfully apprehended but not fully understood. I’ll be in a supermarket and someone will be reading the back of a Coco Pops box and everything about them feels like me. I’m along for the ride. When you’re looking, things appear.

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Walking between these two rooms, I feel a sense of spaces that are being lived in and a state of loss.
Now, the people are gone. There’s empty chairs. Yes, the kids have gone. This is a wilderness. It’s a no man’s land that kids gravitate to—to hang out. The vacant lot behind the shops or down by the creek. That’s what kids have always done. But now, they’ve gone and they’ve left.

In light of your mother’s recent passing, I can’t help but walk into this space and pick up a sense of hope for her or maybe some kind of religious affirmation?
I don’t think it’s religion, what you're talking about is the sacred. It is a sense of loss. It’s central to all the things that interest me. It’s like Proust, “remembrance of things past” or “in search of lost time.” In a way, longing is much stronger than love. Longing is the real power in a lot of art.

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In the Bible as well.
Yes, exactly. The Return of the Prodigal Son, an amazing Rembrandt painting. This whole sense of, “if only.” This whole sense of the loss of something. The impossibility of things ever going back. In a way it doesn’t just have a nostalgic dimension to it, it also acts as a memento mori. It heightens your sense of being alive, the passage of time. And of course, there’s all those smart arse French theoreticians that say photography is always about death.

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