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image icon 'Image no. 153' from the series 'Untitled 1985/86', 1985-86

'Image no. 153' 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 108 cm x 87 cm, is a head and shoulders portrait of a young woman. She is set against a flat blue background, with her head turned slightly away from the viewer. Her long dark hair is matted and tangled as if wet, and drops of moisture also glisten on her bare shoulders and upper chest. The main features of her face are in sharp focus, in contrast to other parts of the image, such as the lower parts of her hair, shoulders, dress and neck chain, which are somewhat blurred. The use of a studio spotlight at the right has cast the young woman's face into areas of strong shadows and highlights.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Bill Henson, who is critically 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 called 'Untitled 1985/86' - the suite of photographic 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 are usually layered and arranged from floor to ceiling 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 the connections and create little stories or narratives that involve the various characters and the 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 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; the selective focus in 'Image no. 153' is deliberate and designed to deflect any easy attempt to 'know' the subject, as well as introduce a more psychological reading into the image; Henson has commented, 'The object of my photographs is not always the subject'
  • is a portrait of a young person - portraits and figures, particularly of young adults, have been one of the artist's key subjects through which he has been able to explore dimensions of contemporary life; Henson began working with adolescent models while still a teenager; this preference is based in part on his appreciation of his own of childhood and adolescent experiences as intensely emotional and imaginative stages of life, which are like twilight zones between waking and sleeping
  • is a powerful and potentially disturbing image - Henson often uses the camera to take the viewer into the personal, physical space of the sitter; by looking away, the young woman seems unaware of the presence of the camera, which in turn creates a sense of the viewer acting as a voyeur and the subject being entirely defenceless (as if trapped) against this invasion of privacy; this awkward situation is something Henson has exploited in his explorations of what some art writers have described as a contemporary sense of psychological dislocation and uncertainty
  • uses contrast to intensify any interpretation - a feature of Henson's imagery has been the deliberate contrast of opposites, light and dark, opulence and poverty, growth and decay; in this image the matted hair (perhaps a coded reference to psychological disarray) contradicts the youthful beauty of the subject.