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by Bill Henson
Scalo Books, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 9th 2003
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
© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
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.