Many years ago I had a wonderful art dealer in Paris. At some point in the late 80s, the Garnier Opéra and Opéra Comique approached my gallery to invite me to collaborate with them. They had a tradition of commissioning visual artists – Richard Serra was also working on a production.
I realised that what would interest me most would be to photograph the audience. It fascinates me how people are part of a tightly packed group yet at the same time alone, a single face in the crowd. And how, from soccer matches to the Nuremberg rallies, as part of a crowd people derive a sense of great power. But it is only borrowed – it belongs to the crowd and must be returned.
Within an opera audience there is a very special feeling. You are part of a large group of people all gathered in the darkness, awaiting and then experiencing the same special event, and yet each person is in an individual, meditative, self-absorbed state. I loved that inherent contradiction. It’s what you see if you watch people looking at, say, Rembrandt portraits, in an art gallery. There’s a kind of magic in seeing someone transported.
This was what I wanted to capture. I photographed in the opera house over several months from different positions. Special lenses allowed me to work with low light. The pictures I created were technically fine, but I didn’t want them to feel like a project documenting the audience at the Paris Opera; I wanted them to feel timeless. To be about how art – any art – can take you to another place. And so to make that happen, I realised that I had to introduce distance and unreality, something that makes the audience tender, unknowable and millennially distant, like the pyramids.
And so I restaged the photographs in my studio in Melbourne with models, with the material that I captured in Paris as my guide. When I work I give people thousands of very specific instructions. So I’m talking the whole time; the absorption you see on the models’ faces is because they’re concentrating, and in trying to do 50 things at once they were lost to the camera as they were so intensely absorbed in what they were doing. Some of the formal compositions and groupings were very close to things that I had actually captured in the opera house, but my photographs give them a sort of strangeness, a slightly detached feel. These aren’t portraits. They’re anti-portraits.
I shot the series on film. I love the grain that is a part of old-fashioned photographs: it is as if you can see the molecules in the air. When you use film, your relationship to the subject is entirely different to when you use a digital camera. Using film, you don’t get to see what you’re doing straight away, you can’t just check the back of the camera or the laptop.
As a child I was always drawing, painting and making things out of clay. At some point in my teens I made the transition to photography, but it was the potential to make the world strange again that drew me to it. Photographs are, for me, the same as a piece of antique Greek marble. They are an object, and objects rely on stillness and strangeness for their power.
Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” And yet we come to the medium of photography conditioned to experience it as evidence of objects in space, events in time. It’s important to try to hang on to that, but also completely skip over it. It’s how you suggest things, in other words, how you universalise the subject, that matters. So you have a teacup on a table, but somehow a great photographer can get the whole world into that picture.
Bill Henson’s CV
Born: 1955, Melbourne, Australia
Trained: One year at Prahran College of Advanced Education (Art), Melbourne
Influences: “Rembrandt, Bach, Thomas Mann, ancient Egyptian art and architecture, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, late Titian”
High point: “Having an Australian prime minister call my work ‘absolutely revolting’”
Low point: “Constantly sitting in my studio and thinking ‘this doesn’t work’”
Top tip: “Try to be true to yourself and don’t stop working”