A photographer’s house of shadows | ET REALITY


In the Melbourne suburb of Northcote, Australia, an enclave known for its cafes and music clubs, the residential streets are mostly lined with century-old wooden houses. But there is one building that stands out: the home and studios of photographer Bill Henson and his partner, painter Louise Hearman. An inconspicuous black steel gate leads to a short cobblestone path and then to an imposing wooden gate, beyond which lies a two-story brick monolith covered in ivy.

Henson, 68, and Hearman, 60, bought the building in 1990, seduced by the way evening light flooded the 4,200-square-foot structure. Originally built as commercial stables in 1880, it was converted to a garage and scrap metal business after the Second World War. It is now reconfigured as a work-living space: the ground floor houses the couple’s studios, including archives and collections of Henson’s books, photographs, paintings and other memorabilia. An upstairs mezzanine, once a storage location for engines and gearboxes, runs along the western edge of the building. It was re-paved with reclaimed jarrah, a Western Australian timber, and now serves as the couple’s living room.

Henson grew up in what was then a semi-rural suburb on the outskirts of the city. When he was 19, after dropping out of art school, his work was exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria. In the decades since, he has become one of the country’s leading photographers, known for his Caravaggio-style mastery of light and shadow in landscapes and portraits. (In 2008, images of naked teenagers of him sparked a police raid at an exhibition in Sydney. But many members of Australia’s creative community came to his defense and authorities declined to press charges.)

The photographer’s studio is in itself a study of light and shadow. Occupying most of the ground floor, the 1,800-square-foot space with 30-foot-high ceilings is contained within weathered brick walls and topped with a distant skylight covered, as are the windows, with shutters that Henson manipulates to create an optimal combination of natural and artificial light. He uses dozens of heavy brass or generic metal desk lamps to “help shape a room,” he says, like a set designer would. “You can decorate a room or beautify it simply with light.” In the makeshift foyer, on a row of mismatched side tables, are a few prized books, including Vladimir Nabokov’s multi-volume translation of Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” and a black-and-white photograph of a serene Thomas Mann , one of Henson’s favorites. authors, illuminated by lamps. Across the room, facing a bare brick wall, is a high-backed chair, upholstered in a red and black Turkish kilim; Leaning against it is a small oil on masonite painting by Hearman of a girl floating in water.

The spacious living room above the study, accessed via a steep wooden staircase, is decorated in shades of brown and gray. Here there is a mansard ceiling clad in dark wood, anchored by steel beams, from which hangs a heavy cast bronze chandelier. The open kitchen reflects the same color scheme: gray saucepans hang on a gray wall next to a dark gray refrigerator, while more desk lamps cast parabolas of light on the walls. At one end of the living space is Henson’s studio. Thousands of books fill 10-foot-high shelves or are stacked on tables: novels, criticism, art, history and rare first editions, including “Satyricon” by Petronius and “Against the Grain” by Joris-Karl Huysmans. There is no cataloging system, just “clusters and thickets of associations,” Henson says.

The resort’s outdoor areas are equally idiosyncratic. In 2004, Henson and Hearman bought the lot next door, part of the same postwar garage complex as their house. Henson uses the main building, whose 15-foot-high doors open like those of an airplane hangar, to photograph some of his work, and has transformed its former parking lot into a botanical garden filled with pepper trees, cypresses and towering palms. . Scattered across the ground are family heirlooms of sorts: dozens of clivias, the bush lily native to South Africa, and clusters of shiny black basalt stones, along with other items from his mother’s garden that he moved here after her death in 2016. .

Back inside the house, Henson heads to one of the dark corners of his studio to point out a large, weathered wood chest of drawers with three-foot-long flat file drawers. It was his mother’s, he says, and inside it is her collection of his son’s early works of art: seascapes and landscapes; sketches of school friends in dark charcoal or filigree lines; meticulous recreations of complex architectural pieces and representations of Egyptian tombs and hieroglyphics. It’s the kind of eclecticism you might expect from a young artist, easily enchanted by the world around him and eager to make sense of it. Surrounding the chest are shelves, shelves, and tables filled with books, prints, and other miscellaneous items, further proof that his curiosity never got the better of him. “It’s messy, yes, but it’s my mess,” Henson says. “You create an environment, as best you can, that gives you pleasure.”

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