Bill Henson chooses the images that define Australia

Elemental power: Laurie Wilson's image of breaking surf at Point Lonsdale (1975)

Elemental power: Laurie Wilson’s image of breaking surf at Point Lonsdale (1975)
Source: Supplied

Innocence: Laurence Le Guay's shot of Aboriginal girls, circa 1970

Innocence: Laurence Le Guay’s shot of Aboriginal girls, circa 1970
Source: Supplied

Another era: Erskine Street and AWA tower, Sydney, circa 1947, by David Moore

Another era: Erskine Street and AWA tower, Sydney, circa 1947, by David Moore
Source: Supplied

Gritty: Newcastle steelworks (1963) by David Moore

Gritty: Newcastle steelworks (1963) by David Moore
Source: Supplied




IN this age of digital photography it’s a common problem: too many images, too many choices.


So imagine what it’s like trawling through more than 2000 photographs that comprise the collection at Monash Gallery of Art (MGA), knowing you can select only a fraction for an exhibition that will represent Australian photography.

That was the predicament photographer Bill Henson faced in curating his first Australian exhibition, Wildcards: Bill Henson Shuffles the Deck. Melbourne’s MGA is regarded as the home of Australian photography and houses works that track the evolution of the medium in this country. While Henson was familiar with many images in the collection, there were others he’d never seen, and so he went on a “journey of discovery”, selecting works based largely on aesthetic appeal.

“With this show I wanted to have the freedom to respond to the individual images purely as something that caught my eye,” he says. “In the end the thing that is interesting in art is always the thing that slips away from thought. It’s something powerfully apprehended that you can’t quite put words to, an experience where you can’t see the parameters.”

It’s this suggestive power of photography that continues to inspire him in his own work. “One of the things that keeps me making photographs, probably, but I’m not sure, is that it strikes me as the most profoundly contradictory of mediums because the evidential authority of the medium precedes any individual reading of a picture. We don’t come preconditioned to other art forms in the same way. We expect to be taken on some kind of imaginary journey. The thing that interests me is how a photograph can suggest, not just prescribe, another world within a landscape, portrait or still life, and that’s what I was responding to when curating this exhibition.”

The final cut of Wildcards features around 100 photographs; there’s no linear narrative, but the images “do carry within them an indelible imprint, which speaks to us of their time, place and outlook”, Henson says. “This is applicable to those photographs dating back to the 19th century as well as more contemporary times … The passage of time hovers quietly in each picture in its own way, whether you are looking at a little cyanotype from the 19th century or a black and white photograph of an art performance from the 1970s.”

He refers to a photograph by David Moore of Erskine Street, Sydney, circa 1947. “This picture gives us a feeling of Sydney at another time. This photograph couldn’t be made today because the city in this picture no longer exists, or rather now only exists in our imagination.”

The same can be said of the photograph of young Aboriginal girls in Central Australia taken by Laurence Le Guay, circa 1970. “This is one of my favourites,” he says. “What interests me about this photograph is that it has a straightforward innocence, frankness and directness. This photograph could only be made by someone who has a simple and direct – but no less heartfelt or honest – sympathy for the subject, without the palimpsest of complexities that now overlay anything to do with indigenous culture in Australia.”

Laurie Wilson’s image of breaking surf at Point Lonsdale (1975) “is a quite brutal and archetypal image”, says Henson. “It has an elemental power about it and carries that whole feeling of the force of nature, but it’s also quite balletic and beautiful as an image. Of course we’ve all seen a million pictures of waves and the surf, but it just has some kind of simple primary force to it. And he’s used the black and white medium very effectively, so it is particularly beautiful in its form.”

But it is Melbourne photographer Rod Stewart’s 1985 portrait of the late Athol Shmith, who headed the photography course at Prahran College in the 1970s, that is Henson’s most personal selection. “This is a really beautiful portrait of a very interesting and complex person who was an early mentor of mine when I was a student at Prahran College, although I didn’t select it because of that alone. For me this portrait had a significance as a picture of someone I knew and liked very much, but it is also a very powerful picture … a really thought-provoking and intense portrait. You don’t need to know the individual to appreciate the psychological depth of it.”

Henson says one of the messages he wants to convey is that there is no correct way to view a photograph, just as there is no correct way to listen to Mozart or to look at Rembrandt. “One cannot overstate the importance of the priority of individual experience,” he says. “There’s only your way and in the case of this exhibition, my way. It is entirely my taste, my interests and my feelings that are on show here.”

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