“It was the dreamscape of the suburbs that interested me.”
An Interview with Bill Henson by Sabine Mirlesse
Sabine Mirlesse: 1985 is work you shot thirty years ago – what were you doing in Egypt?
Bill Henson: As a boy I was obsessed with Egypt and Egyptology. I’m convinced it’s not that uncommon. A lot of 10 or 12 year old boys become obsessed with Egypt. It’s a bit like young girls and horses…
SM: Umm… I wasn’t into horses at all.
BH: A lot of them are. Horses are amazing—I mean why wouldn’t you be interested in them?
SM: I was digging things up in the playground at school thinking I was going to be an archaeologist, find some dinosaur bones or a secret tunnel to China.
BH: Archaeology always fascinated me as well. I always had this smell of it in my imagination, or in my mind’s eye. Australia is probably the most middle class country in the world and therefore the suburbs are where most people come from and grow up in. In some strange way I became interested in the feeling rather than the idea—which is important because meaning comes from feeling and not the other way around—that the landscape of my childhood, the suburbs that is, and ancient Egypt, could be seen at an equal distance or a equal closeness. So I began to imagine what it might be like to put those images next to each other—to create an unlikely juxtaposition of images, not because I had any particular agenda, but because they began to both smell the same. It was possible that they could be similar in some deeply emotional way to me. So I went to Egypt and photographed the ruins, and the architecture, the desert, and so on—and visited what seemed like some old friends because I was entirely familiar with it from reading and looking at photographs and encyclopedias already. Already at the age of twelve I knew all about it.
SM: Learnt in school? Or were you teaching yourself privately?
BH: Oh no, these were things I learned privately from as early as nine or ten years old –a little kid sitting around with LIFE magazine’s special on Tutankhamen or with picture books and encyclopedias. I had a job in a shop when I was very young and all my pocket money went into books—I mean all of my money still goes into books basically. I had this wonderful imaginary world—which was as far as the archaeology was concerned, very detailed. I had read a details description for example of the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb. So there was that very deep love and fascination with the Egyptology and its history but also with the objects that they make. I tell all my architect friends that have never been to Egypt that they have yet to see the best architecture in the world. I believe that. There’s something that is at the same time so right and so unreasonable about all the temples, the Ptolomeic stuff, the pyramids. There’s no way around it. It could have been built by people who were sixty feet tall but it wasn’t. There’s something about the processional nature of the architecture, of the rooms connecting rooms. It’s just breathtaking.
Anyway, all of this material was swirling in my imagination. I was also familiar with all the social documentation of suburban life. It’s a big industry in the US and it always has been. The world is a colony of the US. The twentieth century was the US’s century. All those people that went out and photographed the suburbs, like Bill Owens, or going back even further—Walker Evans – just pick a name, many people were doing it in different ways. But what interested me was the feeling that it was a dreamscape NOT a landscape. It was the dreamscape of the suburbs that interested me. It was this aspirational longing for some kind of perfect balance in life.
SM: A perfect civilization?
BH: A perfect civlilization, yes. Perfectly harmonious. This impossible dream—which the suburbs are. All of this interested me. After thinking about how I would do this for years I decided to photograph the suburbs as a dreamscape. And it all kind of effortlessly meshed with the Egyptian pictures.
SM: Did you ever see this work becoming a book though? How did that part actually come about? Did Gregory and Rachel Barker just approach you and suggest it?
SM: How did they know about the work?
BH: I don’t know how they knew about the work. They asked me if they could feature some of it in their magazine, which is called Hotshoe, and I was fine with that. After doing that I think they must have just workshopped it with themselves and though ‘gee, let’s do a book”.
SM: For me the suburban life is one of the most terrifying things—I mean, I’ve not seen the suburbs in Australia so perhaps it’s much different. It’s more of a nightmare for me than a dream though. It also might be generational—the idea of that place as perfection. I think for me it was already understood to be sort of washed up and full of all the clichéd broken dreams and painful homogeneity as I was growing up. At least that appeared to be the pop culture surrounding it—those sitcoms and re-runs looked fizzling out during my teens.
BH: Well that’s the popular view. And it’s the view of most adolescents dying to get out of there and go to the big city of wherever they wanna go. But I never had that reaction to the suburbs that I grew up in.
BH: No. I was always amazed at how beautiful the light was. At different times of the day the landscape becomes a different place. Dawn and dusk, it’s a different place. Somehow the weather, that most ‘universal conditioner of life on earth’ as my friend Peter says, completely changes the way we understand the landscape around us. I found myself going—yeah! When the sun would come up over the mountains and caress these buildings that might be otherwise quite pedestrian—it lends it some other kind of magic.
SM: Light does?
BH: Mm hm. And the weather. It’s the two things combined.
SM: Maybe I need to visit the Australian suburbs then.
BH: It’s exactly the same as the American suburbs. It’s like what Gabrielle Chanel said to Visconti—“Its not the life you live, it’s the life you dream, baby!”
“You spend your whole life trapped inside your body. Everything you know about the world comes to you through your body.”
SM: Do you feel most inspired there in the surburbs?
BH: Look I mean walking across to the Grand Palais from the Louvre earlier on—it’s beautiful. The trees are beautiful. The trees are beautiful.
SM: Right, so thinking of that comparison—I mean, the suburbs to me have been a kind of destroyer of inspiration—
BH: — A cultural wasteland?
SM: Well, yes, sort of. I mean, you don’t feel your own history the way you do in an older city like Paris, you don’t have the wide open uplifting side of being in the real countryside either.
BH: I was always inspired there. We are where we think we are.
SM: So it’s something you decide from within?
BH: I think your body decides it for you.
SM: So it actually could be anywhere?
BH: Meaning coming from feeling, feeling coming from within, you absorb a massive amount of information, it goes through your whole body, a little bit of it floats up to your head where there is deliberation. You are conditioned by the way your whole body is responding to what is going on. Barometric pressure, velocity, humidity, acoustics. These are the primary conditions for life on earth. For any sentient being. I mean the way the wind changes—and this could be happening in an underground carpark, it’s not necessarily a romantic view of the world, it’s a physical one. You spend your whole life trapped inside your body. Everything you know about the world comes to you through your body.
SM: Your sensory experiences.
BH: There’s no other way of getting information. It’s being sensitive to the stimuli. What is the right size for a picture?
SM: You’re asking me?
BH: My friend who used to run the photo archive at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris complaining about how everyone keeps printing bigger and bigger pictures and that it’s becoming a storage issue for him. When you hold one here [gesturing with his palm up to his nose] it’s the size of a house anyway. Proximity!
BH: Have you ever seen the And the Ship Sails On? Fellini loved the medium and ignored the medium at the same time, which is how I feel about photography.
SM: I love Fellini, but I am embarrassed to say I haven’t seen that one—yet! What do you mean by loving and ignoring the medium?
BH: For me it feels as though you are utterly dependent on the medium, and therefore you must love it. You should want to eat the paint.
SM: No paint in photography, though.
BH: No, but it’s that effect though. You must really love it. Simultaneously you need to be disdainful. At exactly the same time in fact. You are utterly dependent on it—this is the means by which you might be able to make an object that is interesting that just happens to be a photograph but at the same time you have to be able to go “well, if it doesn’t work like this I’ll have to try to make it out of clay.” Don’t put the cart before the horse. It’s a means to an end. But it is all you have. There’s a great essay by the art writer Dore Ashton about the end of Mark Rothko’s life—she used to go and visit him and she said that when Mark was really happy about he would say to her “I don’t know what it is but it’s not a painting” and yet she notes painting was his only means. Photography is one’s only means but at the same time you have to feel like, well put a knife through it, turn it upside down!
“Most of life is grey, with a little tiny bit of black and white.”
SM: Speaking of painting, I’m certain people have told you how painterly your work is—so why photography, actually? Why not painting?
BH: I painted and drew obsessively as a child. I say obsessively without wanting it to sound melodramatic but I was very serious the way children often are. I got into university with a painting portfolio. They were paintings I had made like five years before when I was only thirteen years old.
SM: Did they resemble in any way your photographs?
BH: No. They were landscapes and faces and copies of old masters. But by the time I got into art school I had long since been drawn into this thing called photography.
BH: The reason is because I had a gathering sense that what I was doing when I was working with photography fell less-short.
SM: Do you still feel that way today?
BH: I do. No medium is more limited than any other. It’s what a person does with it. We could talk about the differences between music and literature and photography, sure, but it really comes down to what a person does. There are no inherent limitations to the medium. There are just differences. It just struck me that one of the things about photography that made it such a compelling medium to deal with is that it is perhaps the most contradictory of mediums.
SM: Because it’s a lie? Because it’s alive and dead at the same time?
BH: Because for all the textbook reasons– any individual’s reading of a photograph is preceded by the evidential authority of the medium. You have the literalness of a glass on a table—and at the same time of that evidential authority that you can’t get around, there is the possibility of universalizing the subject—of getting the whole world into the picture. As Gustav Mahler used to say ‘when I write a symphony I try to get the whole world into it’. But how do you hang on to one of the cardinal qualities of photography which is its recording of this physical reality, points in time, objects in space, and so on and suggest so much more. In other words you want to hold all the descriptive power of the medium to describe something very particular and at the same time you want it to suggest things that are completely abstract and not in any way finite. Simultaneously. It’s possible. But that’s what makes it wild.
When you sit down with a novel, or in a theatre, or when you sit down at a concert, you are conditioned to accept the fact that you are going to go on a magical journey. You’re going to be distracted. You’re going to be taken away, taken to another place. With painting and with poetry we expect this. Photography doesn’t work that way though. We have this other thing which is what some people think of as a hurdle—it’s not a hurdle—its part of its great power—to be both absolutely finite in some bizarre sense and at the same time infinite if we can manage to suggest. You have to hang on to the descriptive, but you have to have the descriptive overtaken by the suggestive. It’s profoundly contradictory to me and that is fascinating. Am I making sense?
SM: You are.
BH: You have that glass of wine that’ll need to be topped up very soon as will mine and there it is. There is a lot of very specific undeniable information before you. The question is how to do make a picture of that glass take you on a magical journey? How does that become a poem. How does that become poetic? Have you ever read ‘God deserts Antony’ by the 1930s greek poet Cavafy? It’s pertinent to what I’m trying to say. I’ll paraphrase: in essence God is basically saying to Antony, don’t weep like a coward, go to the window, quietly and firmly, and listen to the magical sounds coming from the passing company that lies beneath your window and say goodbye to Alexandria—for she is leaving you” – so he is not leaving the city, but the city , she, is leaving him. It’s wonderful!
SM: We have to talk more about literature too. Words are very important to you, a great deal more so it seems than many visual artists. 1985 begins with an introduction by Robert Valser—someone who was considered to be more of a genius than Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka in his day. But who ended up frozen to death after escaping from an insane asylum and is more or less completely out of print today and far less known than his contemporaries.
BH: Yes, that short story, Balloon Journey, has got to be one of the greatest short stories ever written. This guy gets the whole world into just a page and a half or two pages. It’s unbelievable. If you look carefully at each sentence and at what each sentence contains it’s amazing. Many of my favorite authors are out of print.
SM: I overheard you yesterday saying that the problem with most contemporary authors is that they are too self-conscious, that you can almost smell that they are thinking of you. That it destroys any real intimacy. Why is that intimacy so important to you?
BH: Well, that’s how you know you’re alive.
SM: Right. I also read on the publisher’s website a quotation from you about this latest publication that I quasi fell in love with about “as we navigate the darkness, through touch, smell, temperature and sound, and the projections of our imagination into this ambiguous space in which we find ourselves. Just occasionally, this might reintroduce us to the deep mystery of the world.” – I was hoping you could go a bit deeper with that and articulate why we need to reacquaint ourselves with that deep mystery?
BH: The bits that they used were truncated bits and pieces from a page I had just typed out and sent to them. You are taking a chunk of something out of context which you are allowed to of course, but what I’m saying is there was a bit of an extrapolation that followed in the original text. That’s fine as an extract though. What happens with experiences that really move us deeply, that really effect us? They make the world new again. What it does is it heightens our sense of mortality. I was talking there about why dusk and dawn were interesting to me because the landscape is being reinvented by the climatic conditions and the time of day—but to draw that out a little bit—when you experience something that has a profound effect emotionally on you, it heightens your sense of mortality, but I don’t see that as a morbid thing. When you go to a great concert something that happens is there is a deep sense of communality and connectedness one to another–as though we are all looking to eachother and saying yeah, we get it, we’re all on one page. That was amazing—the best performance of Beethoven’s 4th symphony I’ve ever heard—you know, whatever, and it reinforces this deeply empathetic thing—your capacity to imagine another person’s experience, or another person’s interior world. So it’s a thing that books you back into the continuity, it reinserts you into the deeper continuity of culture—and of course culture is never far outside nature, so all of these things are conditioned by nature. It puts you back in touch with yourself and with others.
“What happens with experiences that really move us deeply, that really effect us? They make the world new again. What it does is it heightens our sense of mortality.”
SM: Because we are otherwise generally out of touch? Without empathy?
BH: I don’t use soap boxes. I don’t have much to say about whether or not people have lost the plot now. No. I was doing some work in the Hermitage museum a couple of years ago to photograph Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son—to photograph people who were coming past the painting. It was fascinating watching people turn a corner and be yabbering away to eachother about whatever and then forget what they were saying mid-sentence. I spent a week watching it happen. It was because of the power of that amazing painting. They forgot what they were talking about. They were distracted, once again.
SM: Are you a religious person?
BH: No, not particularly. But I think there are things which are more or less institutionalized or civilized—there is the civilization of logic and then there is a deeper logic, no less emphatic. The civilization of logic is go at a green light stop at a red light. But then there is a deeper logic that tells you when something is absolutely right. At a cellular level we know if something is right or not right, whatever the situation is. That is the sort of intuitive thing—that’s a deeper logic.
SM: By right do you mean on a moral level? Isn’t that Kant’s argument for the existence of God? The right and wrong? Or are you going more Tolstoy with the feeling being ‘it’ itself…? Or am I confusing the two… it’s been a while since I read that stuff…
BH: I don’t know. Probably is. You should read Norman Douglas because he wrote a great book about the early gods… and the conversation goes something like ‘where did all this good and evil shit come from?’
SM: Good and evil is a pretty Judeo-Christian invention. In some eastern traditions isn’t it but the shades of grey?
BH: Yes. Just read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. It’s not so much about good and evil, it is about the shades of grey. You’re hitting the nail on the head there, because that is the way I see it. Most of life is grey, with a little tiny bit of black and white. We’re always subject to what I call the compression industry, which is an attempt to compress a million shades of grey with a little bit of black and white to just a hundred, or to ten, or to one! You see it in politics, in political rhetoric. Good versus Evil. You’re either with us or you’re against us. All this shit. There’s almost a joke about it in photography, because with digital imaging, or any technology, reflects mass consumerism, the two things play off eachother. The public imagination and the way in which technology works play off eachother all the time, they reinvent eachother all the time. So you have digital imaging technology and its all about contrasts. Bright intense primaries. High contrast. Subtleties are not what its about. Now you can write the software to fix that – but with digital technology its all about a cartoon rhetoric as I’d like to call it.
SM:. Perfect segway into what you mentioned just before we began recording about the anxiety involved in working with film versus digital. Can you talk about that a bit? That lack of instant gratification of knowing you’ve got a good shot that you can review on your LCD screen, the nervousness involved with analog…
BH: I still shoot on film but now I print digital. I was talking about the relationship you have with the subject in the field—so to speak.
SM: Have you ever shot digitally? Just to try it?
BH: I’m not a luddite, if I need to use it for something I’ll use it. I’ve not used it in a camera, just on an iPhone.
SM: But why not try it? You say you’re not a luddite but…
BH: Because it hasn’t struck me as necessary to date. The moment I think it’s necessary I will use it. The moment it strikes me as necessary to use a lighting truck instead of a candle to light something I’ll use a lighting truck. Fellini said you should only do whats necessary—but that sometimes the most outlandish things are necessary. That’s one of my favorites from Fellini. It’s true. You do what’s necessary. That’s how it works.
SM: Do you use candles often?
BH: Hardly ever. I use old incandescent bulbs. Have you ever heard of a color rendering index? As a photographer you should have.
BH: So if you look at the pattern of the wavelength of an invisible light in an invisible spectrum you realize that an incandescent light is the best thing we have next to sunlight. LED and fluorescent and all these other light sources are pretty crap and they’re missing huge sections of the spectrum. What you get is a lot of green and a lot of pink. Other areas are missing. So now when you go to museums where everyone is using LEDs to light the works the human eye can’t see the subtle differences in color. Daylight is the ultimate. But I forgot what your question was.
SM: About the anxiety you mentioned being an important part of film versus digital…
BH: Right. When you shoot on film, you don’t know whether you’ve got it or not until you get the film processed, and so it changes the relationship we have with the subject whether it’s a landscape or a person in a so-called controlled environment in a chair in a studio in front of you. It’s a profoundly different thing to be able to refer to the images you are taking at the time and check them out on a laptop that is plugged into your Hasselblad and go “oh no, do it again, do it again” –all of those a requickly made decisions. The fact that you can see the images right away in a funny way makes the whole relationship more casual. I don’t want a casual relationship with my subject. That doesn’t interest me. Because what you are doing is you are replacing something which is profoundly intimate with something which is merely familiar. Big difference. Those two words are very important where photography is concerned. What is a profoundly intimate experience? Lying on your carpet alone at night and listening to a piece of music that moves you—your favorite, Mozart, or whatever. It’s an intensely intimate experience. But it’s not familiar. Mozart isn’t there. He died years ago. There is an intensely intimate experience occurring there. It’s different from familiar.
SM: So you’re saying that digital permits you to be less present somehow?
BH: Not less present, you are not taking the subject for granted as much is one way of putting it. Mere familiarity does not interest me. Intimacy interests me. That’s why when I’m photographing a boy in my studio and I get him to turn his head to the left –there are a million ways of turning yoru head to the left—which one will be the one that works? What am I looking for? Well what I’m looking for, because of that profound contradictory nature of the medium, is all the breathing, tender, proximate, vulnerable beauty of a young person standing in front of a camera, and at the same time I want that turn of the head to have all the monumental, distant, inscrutable, grandeur of the great pyramids. I want that in the same shot.
SM: How many people are in your studio when you are shooting?
BH: No one. Never.
SM: Just you and the person?
BH: Of course.
SM: Why young people and not middle aged or older people?
BH: It just works for me. They are the most effective vehicle for the things that I do not understand but for the things which overtake my imagination and interest me. Things which are powerfully apprehended but not fully understood are most effectively served by that subject matter. If you did the head count though of all the people in my photographs from the last forty years there would probably be a pretty even spread actually.
“Adolescence is interesting. I mean, all of life is interesting and all of life is transitionary. But I think there is an exponential growth physically, intellectually, emotionally and there is so much potential.”
SM: But you’re more known for the younger individuals. What things do you apprehend but don’t understand? What things capture your imagination? What do you mean?
BH: Adolescence is interesting. I mean, all of life is interesting and all of life is transitionary. But I think there is an exponential growth physically, intellectually, emotionally and there is so much potential. And it unfolds very quickly, to me, especially as I get older. And that potential for things to go well or to go bad is there and produces almost a kind of floating world and it terms. The Germans have a word for it, Erwartung, right there in between anxiety and expectation. It’s there in adolescence. For me they are the most effective microcosm for the macrocosm of society and civilization as a whole. Because there is this great potential there. There is this unbelievable pattern for growth. Acceleration, independence, letting go of their parents’ hands. It produces this tremendous uncertainty and expectation. It’s an awe inspiring spectacle for me.
SM: How do you choose someone to be photographed?
BH: Well, strangely enough I think the subject recommends itself to the work.
SM: Go on…
BH: I could be standing in the supermarket, and there is a person standing down the aisle, who is reading the back of a cornflakes box but everything about them is going “It’s me! I’m the one you want! I am the necessary subject. This is it!” In a way the process of working reveals things. Things are revealed to you through the process of working. The most interesting thing is when you suddenly come to understand something… its like… of course! That’s the face, body, tree, mountain, that’s what I want.
SM: But all that sounds very sort of abstract in a way—what about on a more logistical level–?
BH: But on a more practical level I can’t pick up the camera until I think I know what I want. I don’t wander around. It’s almost impossible for me to pick up a camera… it’s really hard.
BH: Because a lot is riding on it, I’m really anxious about it.
SM: But that anxiety appears to be a good thing for you, based on what you’ve said thus far.
BH: Well it’s a really big deal to pick up the camera. You pick up a camera because something has been revealed to you in the landscape or in the human-scape. And you have no choice because it’s a gift. And it’s like, oh right, I better start doing this!
SM: Are there any moments that are almost too wonderful to pick up the camera for?
BH: I would say there is a constant potential for you to have a failure of nerve. Those great pictures that you imagined but couldn’t quite pull off. For a whole range of reasons—practical reasons, insecurities, technical items.
SM: Do you ever feel haunted by those images that you never quite pulled off?
BH: No. I feel embarrassed and foolish though sometimes. When you are trying to do something and its not working, you feel foolish. I feel hopeless. But when the picture is working it’s not personal, it’s like you’re along for the ride! For me when I’m failing, it’s all my fault, but when I’m succeeding it’s not my responsibility the picture is making itself and I’m along for the ride. I can say “how great is this picture!” even though I’m the one that made it, I think I can say that because it really has almost nothing to do with me, it’s like it almost made itself.
SM: Do you have kids?
BH: No. I just happen not to. I think it might be because I’m too selfish. It’s why I don’t teach.
SM: Because you’re more interested in what you’re doing than in what other people would be doing, for example students?
BH: Yes. I’ve never taught professionally.
SM: You’ve never tried? Or had an interest in trying?
BH: I mean I’m invited to give lectures all the time and to conduct Q+A’s or do graduation addresses—I’m happy to do things like that. But I’m fortunate enough not to have do anything else apart from make my work. And it’s been that way for a long time. I’d rather work in a second hand bookshop though than teach.
SM: What are you working on next?
BH: What am I working on next? The most interesting picture is the one you’re trying to make now and the smell of the one disappearing around the bend in the road ahead of you. That’s how I feel.
SM: So you believe in that saying that you are only as good as your last picture?
BH: I use that saying.
Sabine Mirlesse is a visual artist and photographer living in Paris. Her project As it it should have been a quarry was published as a book in 2013 by Damiani and will be exhibited this fall in Paris. She tries to interview other artists whenever she can, for others you can read more here.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Sabine Mirlesse. Images @ Bill Henson.)