Lux et Nox – a response

I’ve been a fan of Bill Henson’s photography for as long as I can remember. Last Christmas, I was given a copy of Lux et Nox (the second edition, printed in Australia in 2008 – the first edition by Scalo was produced in 2002), so had the opportunity to spend more time with Henson’s work to think about its appeal.

A large part of the immediate appeal is that I’m not sure exactly what his images are about.


I remember viewing the Paris Opera Project at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and relishing the scale and sumptuous tones of the prints, and being able to spend time watching the watchers, thinking about viewing. But even the Paris Opera images, which have a relatively well defined subject, also have that careful limitation of light and richness of tone which makes them clearly more than simply straightforward representations of opera patrons.

The narrative of Lux et Nox is less well defined. It’s a long work (nearly 200 pages) that appears to begin at dusk and end at dawn. Images of the cast of young people are interspersed with landscapes of light industrial areas and the edges of suburbia. It gives the sense of being away from the city and looking back. But beyond that, it is more difficult to definitively describe the content. The careful chiaroscuro evokes a classicism that contrasts with the casual actions of the kids; they sit or stand about, neither passionate nor bored, neither voluble nor lethargic. The sometimes stunning composition brings into focus a certain voyeuristic aspect of the images. The kids are in varying degrees of undress; sometimes sexually suggestive, occasionally in an embrace, but usually innocent (and never erotic). I think it is the age of the teens (though perhaps some are younger) together with the setting which gives the book its primary timbre. All of the other juxtapositions, including those above, reinforce this core theme: of transition, being on the edge, of change. Henson sets out his metaphorical stage beautifully. These contrasting elements make Lux et Nox a hermeneutic delight.


Some reviewers have been quick to focus on the “teen sexuality” (Beem, p.47), Dennis Cooper going so far as to say that “Henson depicts ‘a posterotic realm where sex [is] the only cure for unquenchable loneliness’ ” (quoted in Hinkson, 2009, p. 203). Daria labels the subjects “disenfranchised youth” (2009, p. 109), and Dykstra: “a romanticism undercut by ambivalence and unease” (2004, p. 132). By favouring some elements over others on Henson’s finely balanced stage, I believe you lose much of the impact of the work.

The less said the better about the removal of related exhibition images by NSW Police in 2008. That carefully considered art can be taken radically out of context to manufacture outrage is a concern. That it gained as much traction as it did is more worrying, as so few of the agitators seemed willing to invest the effort required to appreciate the images on their own terms. This is a point well made by Melinda Hinkson, who concludes her convincing analysis of the affair this way: “Public debate needs to come to terms with the processes that have given rise to an increasingly sexualised public culture, and simultaneously to register the critical contributions made by image makers who reflect upon and interpret these circumstances.” (2009, p. 211)

I was drawn in by the physical beauty of Bill Henson’s photographs, and posed questions about things that matter. I am fortunate to have had time to consider them.


Beem E. A., 2004, ‘International Legends’, Photo District News, Eastern ed. 24.1 (Jan 2004), pp. 46­-48,50
Craven P., 2003, ‘Through a lens darkly’, The Age,
Daria I., 2009, ‘The Photographic Treatment of Emotion in Front of a Stage. Bill Henson: The Opera Project’, Ekphrasis, 1/2009, pp. 106-115,
Dykstra J., 2004, ‘Bill Henson at Robert Miller’, Art in America, December 2004, pp. 131-2
Grundberg A., 2003, ‘Lux Et Nox’, Artforum international 10.2 (Summer 2003), p. 51.
Hinkson M., 2009, ‘Australia’s Bill Henson scandal: notes on the new cultural attitude to images’, Visual Studies,
Lehan J., 2003, ‘Bill Henson’, Photo District News, Eastern ed. 23.5 (May 2003), p. 210
McDonald J., 2011, ‘Bill Henson’, The Age,
Knoblauch L., 2010, ‘In Praise of Shadows: Dirk Braeckman and Bill Henson @Robert Miller’,,
Perring C., 2003, ‘Review – Bill Henson, Lux et Nox’, Metapsychology Online Review, Volume 7 Issue 19,

Tags: , , ,

Posted on February 8, 2015

Leave a Reply