Bill Henson | The Liquid Night
23.11.23 - 31.01.24
New York, Times Square, 1989. It was a definite vibe in the city of neon and shadows that never sleeps, a space between crime, violence and sleaze of the 1970s, and the orgy of Disneyfication and sanitised gentrification in the early 1990s. There was no other place on earth like it, before or since. New York of which art critic Robert Hughes asked: “Could a city with such extremes of Sardanapalian wealth and Calcutta-like misery foster a sane culture?”
In 1989, New York was still a dangerous place, fuelled by cash, guns, and crack, and on an average day that year New York suffered five murders, nine rapes, and 194 aggravated assaults, but it was still the centre of the cultural universe, still clinging to outré glamour and sex appeal, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the Club Kids – the capital of cool.
Times Square was a little bit of both. Renowned Australian photographer Bill Henson was there to take all of it in, capturing the atmosphere on Times Square on 35mm colour negative film, which he would take to a 24-hour lab in midtown to be developed, before returning to the storied Algonquin Hotel to sleep.
Henson, now 68, occasionally controversial, is Australia’s most internationally celebrated photographer. Since 1989 he has shown everywhere that matters, and his work continues to explore the potential of literal and human darkness and reflection, painting with light and shadow.
Most of this Times Square material remained in storage for decades. It was only when Henson revisited them recently that he decided to apply modern digital technologies to the images, bringing out the hidden details and nuances.
The result is The Liquid Night: 60 digital pigment prints that reveal New York’s Times Square in all its lurid grittiness at a very precise time; the yellow cabs, the bright lights, the porn theatre hoardings, the steam from the subway vents, the demimonde of the underworld doing business or looking for a good time, and ordinary civilians just going about their business.
You can track the changes of season through what people are wearing, from sultry summer to winter chill, New York always the star, a beautiful monster.
The underbelly of the city takes on an otherworldly romantic quality, noir with the interplay of saturated colour and shadow, the careful and intimate manipulations of focal length, exposure, and depth of field, with all the import and presence of a Renaissance painting. Timeless and in transition. Gorgeous and grotesque.
You could very easily believe that one could just step into one of these images, straight from the gallery, across time and space. But, at the same time, this was a New York that never was, existing only in Henson’s camera, sharp eye, and unique aesthetic sensibility, and viewed through our nostalgia. We have entered the subjectivity of the artist’s memories.