Bill Henson – The Light Fades But the Gods Remain

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Review by Wayne Swanson 

So often, suburbia is portrayed as a bland and vacuous place — tract homes, franchise convenience stores, and a lot of sullen youth. That’s not the way Australian photographer Bill Henson sees it. Through Henson’s lens, suburbia is a dreamscape filled with dark shadows, fluffy clouds, Egyptian ruins, teenage angst, pastoral vistas, and nostalgic memories.

The Light Fades But the Gods Remain presents Henson’s musings about the Melbourne suburb where he grew up, taken at two stages in his career. The bulk of the book is devoted to an iconic series he shot in 1985 and 1986 when he was in his 30s. The final 11 images were commissioned for an exhibition by the nearby Monash Gallery of Art and shot in 2018 and 2019. Henson, now in his 60s, explains that “I came to understand that what I wanted to capture and hold on to was a place which no longer existed. The possibility of photographing the landscape of memory and in so doing return to the ‘lost domain’ of childhood seemed both beguiling and yet so unlikely.”

Although Henson may not be well known outside of Australia, he is one of the most celebrated contemporary photographic artists Down Under. This book is a showcase for his singular style. His painterly approach draws from the traditions of romantic literature and painting, with Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro lighting, elements of Flemish still-lifes, and a touch of Edward Hopper’s lonely voyeurism.

The palette is dark and moody. Henson’s images are willfully underexposed, and he has no use for the Shadows slider. Instead, he uses deep shadows to conceal details, adding to the enigmatic feel. The 1985-86 images in particular exemplify his trademark style. The view is suburbia as the home of families with children, mostly teenagers putting in their time before moving out into the world. The images are dark and foreboding.

The view from 2018-19 is dramatically different. The focus is on the fields and forests beyond the tracts, where the kids once played. But now they’ve grown up and moved away. Although still underexposed, these images are brighter and more calming. For Henson, it’s a nostalgic view of “a place which ceased to exist fifty years before.”

Together, the two series paint a picture of the lifecycle of suburbia. The images may be dark, but it’s a dreamy darkness. The atmosphere is contemplative rather than judgmental. Henson’s images do not provide easy answers. Rather, they raise questions to ponder.

The rich imagery draws you in and challenges you to think, without necessarily telling you what to think. As Henson notes, “I’m always hoping there just might be something ‘impossible’ about a picture – some profound ‘unlikeliness’ that documents both the world of the imagination and our shared, physical world. Perhaps it’s only through searching for this that we might draw closer to some deeper sense of continuity.”

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The Light Fades But the Gods Remain — Bill Henson

Photographer: Bill Henson, born Melbourne, Australia

Publisher: Thames & Hudson (New York, NY, USA, copyright 2020)

Foreword: Anouska Phizacklea; Introduction: Pippa Milne; Poems: C.P. Cavafy, Robert Walser

Text: English

Hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, four-color lithography, list of works, 11 in. x 13.2 in., 117 photographs, 168 pages, printed in Singapore

Photobook designer: Daniel New

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