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image icon 'Image no. 53' from the series 'Untitled 1985/86', 1985-86

'Image no. 53' from the series 'Untitled 1985/86', 1985-86
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a type C colour photograph by Bill Henson (1955-) dating from 1985-86. The photograph, which measures 107.0 cm x 88.5 cm, is of an evening or night-time scene lit by moonlight shining through clouds. The horizon is set low down, which means that this vertical format image is dominated by the cloud-filled sky. A few silhouetted lampposts (one of which has a street sign attached) stretch off into the distance and are the only real signs of human habitation. The overall image is largely black and white, except for some subtle copper tints in the lighter areas of the clouds.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Bill Henson, who is regarded as one of the most significant artists working in Australia today - born in Melbourne, Henson enrolled to study art at Prahran College of Advanced Education, but was encouraged and supported to take up photography and largely worked on his own; Henson held his first solo exhibition (at age 19) at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1974; he has since exhibited extensively in Australia, including at the Biennale of Sydney in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 2000; in 1995 he represented Australia at the 46th Venice Biennale; Henson's work is held in all major Australian art museum collections, as well as in a large number of major collections in Europe and the USA; his photographic works continue to offer distinctive personal insights into the nature of imagination and feeling within a post-industrial, suburbanised world
  • is one work from a series of photographic works called 'Untitled 1985/86' - the suite of works consists of a total of 154 images taken by the artist in Egypt and suburban Melbourne; the images are a blend of facades and fragments of ancient Egyptian buildings, temples and monuments and suburban and industrial landscape subjects from the outer fringes of Melbourne; when displayed as a group, the set of images is usually arranged in a carefully considered order decided on by the artist
  • is part of a photonarrative - by sequencing works on the gallery wall, Henson invites the viewer to make connections and create little stories or narratives that involve the various characters and their settings; a number of art writers have described the process of writing about his works as being like trying to describe a dream; one observation referred to the entire suite of images as passing over the viewer like a meteorological event; Henson has said that '... the entire series should in fact amount to an image'
  • is a suggestive image - Henson's photographs have the capacity to translate everyday subjects into images that have special significance or meaning; this is a photograph of a 'normal' suburban street, but the heavy atmospheric effects of the dark moonlit clouds and the silhouetted gaslamp-style street lights give the image the qualities of a still from a classic horror movie; the street sign, strategically placed off-centre, introduces the idea of being directed somewhere, perhaps into the dark unknown; images such as these in the 'Untitled' 1985/86 series cast Australian suburbia as a setting for dark Gothic fears and fantasies
  • is an excellent example of the artist's cinematic use of dark and light - this is evident in the way the artist has 'squeezed' or broken up the light by infilling the foreground with deep velvety blacks and merging this ground mass to suggest that earth and sky are united in a desire to keep out the light; the slightly out-of-focus lampposts present another example of the artist thinking as a cinematographer by withholding specific information to build the mood; critical comment has suggested that the way Henson values and uses light and dark to achieve visual drama resembles some of the great European painters, particularly the Italian Baroque artists of the 17th century
  • conveys a strong sense, through its lack of defined details and strong atmospheric mood, of the artist's reliance on intuition in the development of images - Henson has commented that the work 'might begin with a fleeting impression from first-hand experience or in a piece of music I am always drawn back to, or perhaps in a paragraph of writing I cannot forget - and then it takes its own course'
  • is a technically creative work - Henson experiments technically and his images are often manipulated in the darkroom to, for instance, create smoky effects, blur the sharpness of edges or create a sense of spatial depth within different areas (as seen in this photograph); in a series of works made in 1997, he printed gelatin silver photographs on lead, which helped to blur the density of the images; in another series of architectural images (1983-84), he leached out the colour to convey the feeling of cold and bruised wintery interiors
  • references Henson's interest in the work of US photographer Alfred Stielglitz (1864-1946) - curator Judy Annear draws a connection between Henson's extensive studies of cloud formations (and their exploitation as compositional and mood elements) and Stieglitz's photographs of clouds made in the 1920s; others have also commented on the similarities of Henson's deliberate manipulation of darkroom processes to achieve slightly 'unreal' selective-focus images with 19th- and early 20th-century pictorialist photography, particularly heavily tonal images printed on gum-bichromate paper.