Henson has exhibited nationally and internationally in galleries such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. His current practice involves holding one exhibition in Australia every two years, and up to three overseas exhibitions each year.
The use of chiaroscuro is common throughout his works, through underexposure and adjustment in printing. His photographs' use of bokeh is intended to give them a painterly atmosphere. The work is often presented as diptychs, triptychs and in other groupings, and the exhibitions are specifically curated by Henson to reflect a sense of musicality.
Duality is a recurring theme of Henson's work, often in combination with adolescent subjects. He frequently employs a flattened perspective through the use of telephoto lenses. His works are often in the form of staged tableaux in which faces of the subjects are often blurred or partly shadowed and do not directly face the viewer.
Life and influences
Raised in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Henson studied Visual Arts and Design 1974–1975 at Prahran College of Advanced Education where Athol Shmith was head of the Photography program and John Cato and Paul Cox were lecturers. He did not complete the diploma, but the nineteen-year-old Henson's work was promoted by Shmith to Jennie Boddington, inaugural Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria with the result that Henson's first solo show was exhibited there in 1975.
From his period as a student until its closure in 1980, he worked at The Bookshop of Margareta Webber 343 Little Collins Street Melbourne, which specialised in luxurious books on ballet, dance and the visual arts. Leaving the bookshop, he traveled and photographed in Eastern Europe. He taught briefly at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. Henson's long-term relationship with Luminist Melbourne painter Louise Hearman, whom he met in 1981 at the Victorian College of Arts, has been noted as mutually influential on their art. Hearman won the 2014 Moran portrait prize, Australia's richest at $A150,000, with her double portrait of Bill Henson.
On 22 May 2008, the opening night of Bill Henson's 2007–2008 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, was canceled after eight individual complaints were made to Police voicing concerns about an email invitation from the Gallery to a "Private View" that depicted photographs of a nude 13-year-old girl. Hetty Johnston, a child protection advocate also lodged a complaint with the New South Wales police. On the same day a Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Miranda Devine, had also written a scathing article in response to viewing the email invitation, which precipitated heated talk-back and media discussion throughout the day. In the process of removing the images from the Gallery, Police found more photographs of naked children on exhibition among various large format photographs of nonfigurative subjects, which they later sought to examine for the purposes of determining their legal status under the NSW Crimes Act and child protection legislation. Following discussions with the Gallery and a decision by Henson, the Gallery canceled the opening and postponed the show.
It was announced on 23 May that a number of the images in the exhibition had been seized by police local Area Commander Alan Sicard, with the intention of charging Bill Henson, the Gallery, or both with "publishing an indecent article" under the Crimes Act. The seized images were also removed from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery website, where the remainder of the series can now be viewed online.
The situation provoked a national debate on censorship. In a televised interview, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that he found the images "absolutely revolting" and that they had "no artistic merit". These views swiftly drew censure from members of the 'creative stream' who attended the recent 2020 Summit convened by Rudd, led by actress Cate Blanchett.
On 5 June 2008 the former director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher, said it was "not surprising" that the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would announce its official recommendation that no charges be laid regarding the Sydney Roslyn Oxley9 gallery's collection of photographs by artist Bill Henson. Ms Churcher said it would have been ridiculous to drag the case through the courts:
I'm very pleased that the public prosecutor has decided that it's likely to end the debacle because they always do, as soon as you take art into court it never works ... The court is not the place to decide matters of art.
On 6 June 2008 it was reported in The Age that police would not prosecute Bill Henson over his photographs of naked teenagers, after they were declared "mild and justified" and given a PG rating by the Australian Classification Board, suggesting viewing by children under the age of 16 is suitable with parental guidance.
Australian scholar Niall Lucy criticized Devine's response to Henson's art in his 2010 book Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Down Under. David Marr's book about the 2008 incident The Henson case was listed for the 2009 Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the 2009 Prime Minister's Literary Awards.
Selection of models
On 4 October 2008, Henson became the center of controversy again after it was revealed in extracts of The Henson case that in 2007 he visited St Kilda Park Primary School to pick out potential models for his artwork. Henson was allowed entry into the school and escorted by principal Sue Knight around the school grounds and picked two children he thought would be suitable – one child, a boy, was later photographed after his parents were approached by the school on behalf of the artist.
An investigation into the matter was launched by the Department of Education on 6 October 2008. The investigation found that the principal had complied with departmental policy, and had no case to answer.
- Bill Henson, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
- Bill Henson Photographs, Photographers' Gallery, London
- Bill Henson, Untitled 1983/84, Pinacotheca, Melbourne, Australia, July
- Bill Henson Fotografien, Museum Moderner Kunst, Palais Liechtenstein, Wien
- Bill Henson Photographs, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
- Bill Henson, Tel Aviv Museum of Art
- Bill Henson, ACP Galerie Peter Schuengel, Salzburg
- Presence 3: Bill Henson, The Speed Art Museum, Kentucky
- Bill Henson, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
- Bill Henson, Robert Miller Gallery, New York, United States
- Bill Henson, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia
- Bill Henson, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia
- Bill Henson, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Australia
- Diane Arbus, Bill Henson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Miller Gallery, New York, United States
- Bill Henson, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Travelled over Australia
- Cloud Landscapes, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
- The Youth Code!, Christophe Guye Galerie, Zurich, Switzerland
Major monographs on the artist's work:
- Bill Henson ; edited by Martin Jaeggi and Walter Keller (2002). Lux et Nox Zurich, Switzerland : Scalo; 2nd ed. London:Thames & Hudson (2009)
- Henson, Bill, (2005) Mnemosyne. Zurich : Scalo in association with Art Gallery of New South Wales.
- NGV. Retrieved 8 February 2014
- "What becomes apparent when you see Henson’s work in person is the importance of the almost pitch-black darkness that, in whatever formal context he has devised over the years, always cloaks his forlorn, defiantly unneedy subjects, giving their run-down urban environments the look of remote desert outposts. It’s a black that seems both to be caked on the surface of the photographs, like tar or centuries of soot, and to recede infinitely into the background. It looks as solid as lead, a physical threat to the teens it blankets, and at the same time it’s as if the blackness were exuded by their bodies, forming a kind of paranormal manifestation of some feeling too intense and guarded to register in any other fashion. In its own peculiar way Henson’s black is as unique an achievement as, say, Robert Ryman’s white." Dennis Cooper (2002) The Photography of Bill Henson: Naked Youth, Artforum International, No. 6, p.94-97
- "As the new Biss recording of Mozart's K364 Sinfonia Concertante, the Andante movement only, repeats itself endlessly on my stereo, the sound of Richard Tognetti and the ACO orchestra at their absolute greatest washes over me like a tsunami, while my head is also spinning with the staggering beauty of a single gesture made by a woman riding the escalator at the Westfield Doncaster shopping centre, and with just how Tognetti's violin sounds like she looked. Well, there you have it. I call it millennial slippage. You might call it madness..." Henson in interview with Amanda Smith, Artworks Broadcast:Sunday 15 August 2010 11:05AM, Australian Broadcasting Commission transcript, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/artworks/artworks-feature-bill-henson/3020240 Downloaded 26 May 2012
- Capon, E., Malouf, D. & Annear, J., in Mnemosyne, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Scalo, (2205) 8-9, 12, 35.
- see discussion of the Luminous concert (2005) performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra to a screening of Henson imagery in Stevens, Meghan (2009).Music and Image in Concert. Australia: Music and Image in Concert
- Smee, S., Touch of Innocence, Weekend Australian [newspaper]. 22–23 January 2005.
- "And this sexiness that is there and emphasised is crucial to the austere pessimism of these works. But to see it as the point of the photographs, arraigning Henson as a purveyor of kiddie porn to the elite, is, putting it charitably, to miss the point. It’s like reading him as a centrefold photographer for whom the background is just backdrop. Or thinking the clothed figure in Titian’s Allegory of Vice and Virtue represents the good girl. What Henson is actually giving us is a series of shattered paysages moralisés, where the innocent sexiness of the bodies is posed against a landscape they are not part of — the majestic, insensible alps (alps that bring to mind the poignancy, which had never struckeme before of Robbe-Grillet’s statement about how Mt Blanc had not been waiting since the Permian Age to be a symbol for Shelley). Henson’s alps appear like a scroll rolled back, to reveal a deus sive natura it is sentimental to even describe as pitiless. These alps tower over the figures but the environment they are posed in seems just as alien. There is no back to nature primitivism about these figures. They are bruised and wounded and helpless — the flowers about to be consumed in the furnace." John Forbes (1993) 'Bill Henson'. In Henson, Bill & Annear, Judy & Art Gallery of New South Wales & National Gallery of Victoria (2005). Mnemosyne. Scalo in association with Art Gallery of New South Wales, Zurich
- Crawford, A (2003). "Bill Henson: Lux et Nox". Art Monthly Australia. 164 (October).
- DARIA, Ioan (2009) The Photographic Treatment of Emotion in Front of a Stage. Bill Henson: The Opera Project. EKPHRASIS: IMAGES, CINEMA, THEATRE, MEDIA, 1/2009 Integrating Methodologies in Visual Culture Research, The Faculty of Theater and Television, Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj. Online http://ekphrasis.accentpublisher.ro/files/magazines_content/47/0.pdf accessed 27 May 2012
- "Henson's images brood and turn in on themselves rather than present themselves explicitly to the audience." Burke, Janine and Henson, Bill. Art for the End of the World. Meanjin, Vol. 40, No. 3, Oct 1981: 375-388.
- "I don’t use soap boxes. I don’t have much to say about whether or not people have lost the plot now. No." Henson, Bill & Mirlesse, Sabine (2015) Dreamscapes and Sensory Experience: An Interview with Bill Henson By Sabine Mirlesse, June 15, 2015. American Suburb X website  Accessed 20 June 2015
- "I'm not here today to talk about the downfall of Kevin Rudd or the prospects for some Elizabethan renaissance of the arts if Julia Gillard is elected...". Henson in interview with Amanda Smith, Artworks Broadcast:Sunday 15 August 2010 11:05AM, Australian Broadcasting Commission transcript, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/artworks/artworks-feature-bill-henson/3020240 Downloaded 26 May 2012
- "It is remarkable that, so young, his armoury of technical skill is so narrowly focused and accurately directed to serve his needs. He does his own colour processing in his bedroom[...]. He has referred to a ‘certain morbidity’ in his work. Well, that is an element of life too. The young ballerinas seem to be under a spell, in thrall. At one and the same time he is tender artist and tyrant. The delicacy and control of colour in these shades will excite wonderment and pleasure, where a hint of coral light imbues the lobe of an ear, or minuscule catchlight alights with barest touch on the tip of eyelashes or edges the profiled iris of her eye. At times he teases with only a suggestion of vaporous form, but the presence breathes within the frame. Do we not grieve for mortality when we perceive (for there is a tactile as well as a visual understanding here) the wisp of hair on the nape of her neck? There is something in the order of mystery. Enter the trance." Jennie Boddington (1975), Of Tender Years Published Photography Gallery room brochure, National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne
- Boddington, J., Henson, B., (July 1975) exhibition catalogue. Melbourne:National Gallery of Victoria
- Smee, Sebastian. Bill Henson. Art and Australia Vol.42, No.3, Autumn 2005, p. 396 – 405
- Henson, Bill, (1980) The bookshop of Margareta Webber : 1 map ; 46 x 60 cm. (Not drawn to scale). State Library of Victoria collection. Melbourne: Webbers Booksellers http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/7648003
- 'The first city I wanted to see was Dresden.' Henson quoted by Smee, Sebastian. Bill Henson. Art and Australia Vol.42, No.3, Autumn 2005, p. 396 – 405
- Coslovich, Gabriella (2008) Seeing in the dark: Louise Hearman remains enthralled by the richness of oil paint. The Age [newspaper] 18 October 2008. Online article http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/arts/seeing-in-the-dark/2008/10/16/1223750228676.html accessed 26 May 2012
- "...the foreboding tension of her surfaces, a quality more in common with artists such as Dale Frank and Bill Henson." Collection notes Art Gallery of New South Wales © Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006, online http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/502.1995/ accessed 26 May 2012
- Gregg, Simon (2011) New Romantics: Darkness and Light in Australian Art. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty, Limited
- 'The co-judge of the prize, former Art Gallery of NSW director Edmund Capon, said Henson and Hearman had lived together for decades. But Hearman was coy on the subject. "Well, why don’t we just leave that open?" she said. Capon is a long-term friend of Henson and Hearman, and curated Henson’s 2005 exhibition at the AGNSW.' Elizabeth Fortescue, "Paintings of Bill Henson wins $150,000 Doug Moran Portrait Prize". HERALD SUN 28 October 2014
- Tovey, Josephine; Kennedy, Les; Welch, Dylan (24 May 2008). "Art obscenity charges". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 13 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- "Gallery: Nude children exhibit shut". News.com.au. Archived from the original on 25 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- Devine, Miranda (22 May 2008). "Moral backlash over sexing up of our children". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
- "Australian child protection legislation- National Child Protection Clearinghouse". Archived from the original on 11 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-11. . aifs.gov.au
- Roslyn Oxley Gallery, 'Media Statement', 23/5/08
- Kennedy, Les (23 May 2008). "Henson show charges". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- "Bill Henson, 2008". Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- Rudd revolted – Arts – Entertainment. smh.com.au (2008-05-23). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- Rudd stands by criticism of Henson images – National. theage.com.au (2008-05-28). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- Rudd 'revolted' at art of naked children Archived 8 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine.. News.ninemsn.com.au (2008-05-23). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- PM says Henson photos have no artistic merit | The Australian Archived 19 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine.. Theaustralian.news.com.au (2012-02-17). Retrieved on 2012-05-24.
- "Blanchett joins chorus against Henson attack". Archived from the original on 4 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-04.. The Canberra Times (2008-05-28)
- 'Not surprising' no charges laid over NGA Henson collection Archived 10 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- No case against Henson: prosecutors Archived 9 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- No charges for Henson. theage.com.au (2008-06-06)
- 'No charges for Henson Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- Niall Lucy, Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Downunder (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2011).
- Marr, David (2008). The Henson case. Melbourne, Victoria: Text Publishing. ISBN 978-1-921520-03-7.
- "The Henson Case". Text Publishing.
- "Henson 'scouted school for child models'". The Age. 4 October 2008. Archived from the original on 5 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-05.
- "Parents Back School in Henson Row". The Sydney Morning Herald. 4 October 2008. Archived from the original on 8 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
- "Gillard attacks artist's search for models". The Sydney Morning Herald. 4 October 2008. Archived from the original on 8 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
- Tomazin, Farrah; Smith, Bridie (8 November 2008). "Principal in clear over Henson". The Age. Melbourne. Archived from the original on 17 October 2009.
- "Bill Henson career biography". The Daily Telegraph. 22 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- Christophe Guye Galerie, Bill Henson (Biography)
- "NGV Festival of Photography (Bill Henson)" (pdf). NGV International. Retrieved 10 October 2018.
- "Past Exhibition". Robert Miller Gallery. Retrieved 10 October 2018.
- "Bill Henson Public Collections". Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Retrieved 10 October 2018.
- "The Youth Code". Christophe Guye Galerie. Retrieved 10 October 2018.
- Gallery at Christophe Guye Galerie
- Bill Henson's Mnemosyne by Travis Jeppesen
- "Bill Henson photographs taken at twilight". Photography. Victoria and Albert Museum. Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-25.
- Leo Scofield Interviews Bill Henson
- Review of Bill Henson's Mnemosyne by Christian Perring