Bill Henson – Liquid Night

It is challenging not to mention Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, concerning Bill Henson’s recent book Liquid Night, published by Stanley/Barker. I am unsure why some writers have avoided it, but here we are. Liquid Night is a sumptuous and gem-like nighttime foray into Times Square (1989) and the adjacent cinema district, beginning at 42nd Street. Further worth mentioning in connection to my experience of looking at Liquid Night is Marc Eliot’s DOWN 42nd STREET: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World from 2001, which explores the seedy atmosphere of Times Square before Giuliani’s scraping off of its layer of sticky concrete and asphalt topsoil, thus sanitizing the square with a heavy dose of anti-septic banality that now resembles an inadvertently boring form of Disneylandification, dragging it from an Alien Sex Cage to a curbside shopping mall stretching blocks.

I enjoyed reading Eliot’s book when it came out. Though I have never lived in New York, there is an incredible pull toward the city and its history, mainly the century from its Gilded Age to the clean-up of Times Square in the 90s. New York lives in the imagination (state of mind) as much as it embodies an actual place. Not many cities can claim that status. The Times Square New York I imagine and falsely think of, stemming from my cinematic associations with it, is rife with pimps, pushers, dealers, and prostitution. However, I know this is not the case in 2024, and to paint the actual city of New York currently as such is an exercise in futility. It is simply not that energetic anymore. However, in Henson’s book, I am drug back into the cinematic overture of New York, my interpretation of it built on those fading mythologies aided and abetted by copious amounts of screen imbibing and an arrogant (and hypocritical) disavowal of contemporary chain coffee shops. Perhaps it is better now; maybe the real rain won’t have to come and wash all the scum away from the streets.


 I read Eliot’s book when it came out and oddly lamented the decline of Times Square that I had only come to know and invent through the movies of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. His overview of the raunchy side of the sex business mixed with politicians, criminals, and hustlers is a veritable script in itself. Currently, I am reading or (more sheepishly) listening to Quentin Tarantino’s excellent Cinema Speculation. In Tarantino’s run-down of cinema, there is a broader discourse regarding Taxi Driver itself and some speculation about what would have happened with it had Brian de Palma made the film and not Scorsese. Either way, I can most easily hear Bernard Hermann’s OST as I type this.

When I look at Liquid Night, I sense the implication of Henson’s images as part of a movie more than a series of pictures. I find it hard to deviate from the atmosphere of the place and his use of casting to see it as anything other than a form of paper movie with Bill directing, through his singular photographic skill set, a film that echoes the energy and disobedience of Scorsese’s classic from the position of just over a decade later. Not much has changed on set since 1976, yet Bill’s paper movie will not get a sequel as just after it was filmed, the location was about to change forever with the reign (rain) of Giuliani.


With Liquid Night, there are several Henson arrangements in the movie that are pulled from his photography, and that photography is most certainly pulled from his engagement with cinema. I think of his portraits from his books 1985 and Lux et Nox and Mnemosyne. The bodies and faces in his work are formed from the same metaphorical celluloid, and when looking at Henson’s color photographs from the 80s and 90s, I often thought that, with different sequencing, a script could be written. Lux et Nox is particularly partial to reading as cinema. Henson’s tendencies for close-ups and what appears to be telephoto lens work snatches subjects into frames that lie in the distance. The images are sharp in focus. I wonder if his shooting stock was a 1600 ISO 35mm transparency film, perhaps by Fuji. It would account for the saturated reds and the relative thickness of the celluloid, which, shot at night, makes it all that more magical and challenging to capture. A few of the images look like they were underexposed, but I gather these have been managed with good scans. With Henson’s lens work and the resulting book, you get an exciting pace around a site that can no longer live in the reality of the book’s release date. Too much has changed.


In cinematic techniques, Henson employs action and close-ups to enable actors to participate in his movie, some knowing, others unknowing in passing. This allows a sense of action, if not exposition. Some of these frames are cut into stills in the book, which features full-page blow-ups. Even suggesting the word blow-up speaks to a specific type of detective/forensic language with Antonioni’s classic film left rolling off the tongue in assessment. Further images feel like small runs of sequences culled from the exact location, but it is hard to tell as Henson is working the whole of the strip as a site itself; all similarities of location are directed as much by the author as by the neon lighting and taillights from cars, particularly cop cars. Further films like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant (sorry, there is only one) by Abel Ferrara feed these street scenes manna from which to draw imagination from cinema.

Regarding other photobooks that feel within range of Liquid night, I might also suggest Christopher Anderson’s Cop, also published by Stanley/Barker is a good point of reference. Alisa Resnik’s On the Night That We Leave, published by Editions Lamaindonne, also features an arc that could be realized as drawing from cinema. However, her work elicits a constant state of haunting that eludes the frenzy found in Henson’s work. There are other books, a whole slew of books on New York, and I suspect invoking Brassaï’s Paris de Nuit from 1933 would make the most obvious sense. Liquid Night is another in a great series of Henson’s books that were excellently handled by British publishers. You have to love the titles and closing credits of the book. It is refreshing to see Henson’s work extended as these books feel less like compilations of youthful portraits and Egyptian statues as they do something like a sincere monograph with purpose. I highly recommend this and the Henson Opera title, which I will review in the coming weeks.


Bill Henson

Liquid Night


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