Child & Adolescent Development: Overview

Review of "Bill Henson"

By Bill Henson
Scalo Books, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 9th 2003
Bill Henson

Lux et Nox is an astonishing collection of photographs of a the nightlife of a group of Australian teenagers and children.  Some of the pictures in this large format book (11"x17") show the local area during the daylight, and show fields, hills, trees, and roads.  Some of the pictures taken at night show the lights of a city quite close by, and closer are houses and a large industrial area.  In some images, Henson shows some kind of large processing unit at night; concrete, brick and steel lit by lights of various colors, looking simultaneously ugly, beautiful and eerie in a light fog.  It reminds me of some of the oil processing complexes around Charleston, West Virginia and of the industrial complex around Newark, New Jersey. 

Those pictures of the area provide some context for the more central ones of the young people.  Nearly all are taken at night and a few at dusk or maybe dawn.  It is hard to see exactly where they are, but there are pictures of train tracks and disused buildings, so that is probably where this group spend their time.  Sometimes they are simply lying on grass There is no explanatory text to tell the reader who these young people are or why their parents allow them out at night, so one is left to create one’s own narrative.  The pictures are gothic in their darkness, and these boys and girls illuminated by the local artificial lights or sometimes the bright moon have a romantic appeal as creatures of the night, each with his or her own unhappy story.  In one picture, the landscape is even lit by multiple forks of lightening.  In many of the images, the camera catches a sense of sorrow or defiance; the girls eyes are bright with tears in a few, and in others they look away, preoccupied by their worries or maybe just drunk.  Often, they are drinking beer, although it does not seem to give them much pleasure.

Aside from their sadness, the most striking aspect of these young people is their sexuality.  In many pictures they are half-dressed or naked, and in some we see them touching or kissing.  Their bodies are thin and elegant, and they look entirely comfortable without clothes.  There is no denying their melancholy beauty, even if one might be concerned about the depiction of the eroticism of young teenagers. 

One might compare this work to that of Larry Clark in his somewhat notorious photographs of adolescent males and the film Kids in its examination of adolescent sex.  Henson's goal seems partly to report the existence of these children and teens, showing their forbidden activities and their disconnection with the rest of society, but it is clearly more than this.  He is also capturing their inherent beauty, and in this respect his pictures have a romanticism comparable to that of David Hamilton, the well-known photographer of adolescent girls, whose work embodies an almost fetishistic fascination with child turning into a woman.  Henson's images are far grittier than Hamilton's, yet the whole tone of this book is reminiscent of a erotically-charged vampire movie, with the pale skin of these haunted teens almost shining in the darkness.

Henson's work could arouse the same sorts of controversies as that of Jock Sturges and David Hamilton, but the ideas of these different photographers should not be simplistically reduced to the depiction of adolescent sexuality.  Lux et Nox is specifically related to a time and a place and it has a unique aesthetic sensibility.  If it raises morally important issues, then it has performed a significant service, but ultimately the value of the book is that is a moving and exceptionally powerful collection of images.  Highly recommended. 

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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