American William Eggleston and Australian Bill Henson are two very different world -class photographic artists . Eggleston’s world is vividly coloured and “out there”, identifiable, although not without intrigue. Whereas that of Henson is darkly secret with touches of illumination that hint at , but don’t spell out meaning.
I saw both of these solo exhibitions on one day at the NGV’s current Festival of Photography (17 March-18 June, 2017). The NGV is currently holding the largest display of contemporary photography in its history, features exciting and varied work by Australian and international photographers in several solo exhibitions. Both established and emerging photo artists are represented.
I confess I knew nothing about Eggleston ( born Memphis 1933 ) and his work and had only seen pictures on the media some years back of Henson ( born Melbourne 1955 )’s work when his controversial pre-pubescent nudes caused a moral outcry and were removed by police from a gallery in Sydney.
I came ready to learn, with no prejudgments. I’m no expert. What follows are merely my impressions. What I saw and read led me to reflect on the contrast between these two photographers and their two shows. Eggleston is renown for his pioneering in the late 1960’s and 70’s of vivid colour art photography; Henson for his dark, brooding chiascurio – shades of black/ grey with emanating or delineating light and subtle use of colour.
William Eggleston’s works are mainly very colourful portraits with a penchant for red, resembling snapshots of figures in time and space – the 1960’s and 1970’s. Evoking the feeling of the era , there are random shots of ordinary people in diners, petrol stations, phone booths and supermarkets. He photographed his family, his friends,stars, musicians, gogo girls in nightclubs, armed sheriffs.
He, too, caused media outrage , when he bucked the traditional view that only black and white photography qualified as art. He happened across the process of dye transfer printing which had previously only been used for high-end commercial work. He used this process in his vividly coloured exhibition Photographs by William Eggleston in 1976 . When he called this work art ,the New York Times called it “The Most Hated Show of the Year” ! Things have changed somewhat since then. This current exhibition ( from that era ) comes direct from the National Portrait Gallery in London, and was voted as London’s top exhibition of 2016 by The Telegraph.
His images have inspired contemporary film makers such Sophia Coppola, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch.He’s often been invited to photograph on their sets.
According to senior NGV curator, Susan Van Weyk, remarkably Eggleston never took more than one shot of his subjects. Of course , he was shooting film and didn’t have the luxury of instant playback , repeat efforts and the cheapness of digital technology . Nevertheless, in the film days, many people did waste whole films trying to get the right shot! So he must’ve been good, judging by the quality of his images.
His photos show a great understanding of lighting, composition and capturing mood and Depending on your age, you might find them quaint depictions of the past or if you were a young adult of the 1960’s & 70’s you could be flooded with nostalgia and recognition of having lived through that era. ‘By Golly, is that really how we wore our hair!” ( see Eggleston Vimeo for lady sitting on kerb )
On another level, the viewer may be left wondering? Who was that person? What was the story behind the photo? Why is she/he upset ?Some of those questions are answered by reading the descriptions printed beside the photos on the walls.
Maybe, sometimes it’s better not to read the story. One photo showed a totally blood – red photo of a naked friend, surrounded by spray -painted graffiti on his bedroom walls. We are told this was an eccentric nudist dentist by the unlikely moniker of T.C.Boring. This red photo turned out to be ghoulishly prophetic. Some years later, Boring was murdered in that room and his house set on fire.
In the main, Eggleston, struck me as a guy who didn’t spend a lot of time pre-planning his shots, but had the eye and skill to capture the moment and move on.
One has the feeling he was an “out there sort of guy “, always on the move , lens ready to shoot whatever he came across. I am reminded of Hunter S.Thompson’s book :Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ” when I read of Eggleston traversing the length and breadth of America , photographing and being driven by Walter Hopps, described as his “gonzo curator”.
Henson, on the other hand, struck me as an introvert, preferring dark mystery , secrecy, and suggestiveness . A thinker and a planner. A man who might be loathe to leave his studio unless he had a special mission in mind. If he did venture forth, it would mainly be in the twilight hours.
His subjects would come to him and be reconstructed , directed by his mind’s eye – long before he trained the camera lens on them . A man who preferred to arrange his own version of reality. An artist with a preoccupation with a special kind of beauty. He has a signature touch all of his own. A great artist.
I would love to be a fly on the wall to watch him at work. How does he get those often tormented, anguished expressions from his teenage models? Are they like that when they arrive? Or is he their emotional director setting up a scenario for them to react to? What is his process?
Henson’s is not a cold black and white world. It’s often warmer than that. More shades of black and grey with bronze or golden highlights emerging from the dark. Subtly outlining parts of a figure or landscape. Sometimes, very subtle touches of colour.
The Eggleston Gallery, is light and spacious with white ceilings, pale grey painted bands on the wall to accentuate his white-framed and large matted photos, often quite small prints with some exceptions.
By contrast, the Henson Gallery is like entering in a a dark cavern with walls painted black, huge framed photos which loom out of the darkness. Each picture containing subtle touches of light playing around form or bringing the subject out of the dark background into light. Each image, by turn, dominates your attention without any distraction from written descriptions. All photos are “Untitled”. Neither Henson nor the curators are giving away the stories. All the images are starkly beautiful in style, but it’s for the viewer to interpret or react to. I find it hard to imagine there would be no reactions to Henson’s work. One could not be indifferent.
Whereas Eggleston’s show was all portraits, Henson’s was a mix of faces, figures and landscapes.
I was totally transfixed by some of his landscapes – particularly the sunset over the silhouetted black peak jutting into the sky. The way he captured the small bursts of light emerging here and there from the clouds. Breathtakingly beautiful. Transcendental. Soul elevating.
As to the nudes. There were some. I noted that several figures had their ribs showing. And their bodies were taut or contorted with emotions – possibly despair, anguish ? Cries from the dark recesses of the soul? They didn’t have the cherubic plumpness of the antique, coloured marble sculpture of the naked child juxtaposed in the exhibition. It stood out as it was in colour and looked like it had been photographed in an Italian museum or gallery. Was this a message from Henson to silence his critics? Look at classical art. Artists and sculptors from time immemorial have been depicting the human form at all ages.
By chance, a secondary school tour group finished beside me in the Henson Gallery. Year 11 and 12 students who hadn’t been exposed ( pardon the pun) to Henson’s work. I assumed they may have been around the age of Henson’s subjects. Possibly a little older.With their teacher’s permission, I asked them what they thought about the nudes.
Two girls’ reactions were quite polarised. The first, Alexandra, was very upset. “The girls remind me of child trafficking because they are so skinny and sad. This is just not right. It’s exploiting children”. But classmate Livia’s eyes were shining with excitement. “I’ve always been obsessed with human anatomy – and this is quite a different take. The lighting makes the nude forms so beautiful. Like the landscapes, really raw but beautiful. I’m so inspired for my own art.”
In an age of instagrams and selfies, one couldn’t be sure how innocent or otherwise teenagers are today. In the old days , one might have imagined a few awkward and embarrassed guffaws from teenage boys. However, David’s response was very sensitive and sophisticated. He said he had learnt from Henson’s photos that “the body is art – fragile, emotionally exposed, bare”.
A small sample of reactions, but I suspect not atypical of the wider public debate .
If you’re interested in photography, hightail it to the NGV. These two shows are well worthwhile but there’s also much more to see. Check their website.