In June this year the National Gallery of Victoria was gifted Untitled, 1997, a major work by the celebrated Australian photographer Bill Henson. This octagonal image, which the artist refers to as a cut-screen, is from a period in which Henson pinned and taped fragments of photographs along with the reverse side of photographic paper onto large plywood screens. The work shows the single figure of a naked young girl caught mid movement, her attention seemingly absorbed by something that appears out of the frame. The world that she is physically, if rather distractedly, entering is an almost abstracted one. A fragment of sky above and the flash of alandscape seem to locate us in a darkened forest. But when these photographs act in tandem with the shards of white paper that appear to fluctuate and oscillate on the surface of the image, the effect is more dream world than real world.
Although many have perhaps come to associate Henson’s work with pristine, single photographicprints, in fact there has always been a strong experimental quality to his practice from the beginning of his career in the mid 1970s. Henson has always printed his own photographs and believes that the tactile, bodily experience of physically printing the work is a necessary aspect to his practice. In some of his earliest works he chose to disrupt the ‘straight’, evidential nature of the medium by hand-working the print to create a blurring of the boundaries that defined his subject’s bodies from their surroundings. Notably too, in Untitled 1979/80 – a work comprising forty-two photographs that hangs together to form an ecstatic homage to a young boy’s body – Henson often combined the fragments of two prints to form each individual image. The impetus for this was originally pragmatic, as the artist could not afford photographic paper, however, he soon found that the effect suited his vision at this time.
Henson has also reprinted his own images in different ways repeatedly throughout his career. For instance, in a unique set of Untitled lead ‘books’ from 1977/87, in the NGV collection, negatives from various series are reprinted to create strange, even ghostly amalgams. In 1987 too, this process of layering and combining images found a dramatic new form of expression for Henson, as he decided to test the physical dimensions of the medium by creating cut-screens. The subject matter of American nightlife that he was photographing at the time was particularly suited to this way of working with his often abrupt cutting and layering of images on large plywood screens, giving an almost cinematic quality to the works.
Henson began producing another cycle of cut-screens in 1992 and, over the next five years, created fifty large-scale works, some of which were shown at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Untitled, 1997, is from this major series and is a fascinating example in which the artist has chosen to present the work on an octagonal frame.
Its portal-like effect suggests that – like the young girl – we too are entering into an imaginative environment whose existence is as mysterious as it is palpable. It is a tantalising, almost dream-like, image that perfectly encapsulates the artist’s remarkable ability to ignite the speculative capacities of his viewers and is an important and greatly valued addition to the Gallery’s extensive holdings of Henson’s work.
Dr Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).