Review: ‘Looking at Looking’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 30th September 2011 – 4th March 2012


Bill Henson. 'Untitled 1980/82' 1980-82


Bill Henson (Australian, b. 1955)
Untitled 1980/82
From the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980-1982
Gelatin silver photograph
43.0 x 38.8cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Anonymous gift, 1993
© Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney



“The paradox is the more we seek to fix our vision of the world and to control it the less sure we are as to who we are and what our place is in the world.”

Marcus Bunyan 2011



This is a delightful, intimate exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria that examines how looking through a camera directs and structures the way we see the world. The exhibition mines the same ground as one of my top exhibitions from last year, In camera and in public that was presented at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy.

Numerous artists use photography to examine the ways in which gender, race and sexuality have been ‘looked at’ in visual culture, including the politics of looking in relation to Indigenous cultures and identities. In I split your gaze (1997) by Brook Andrew, the artist has split the face of an Aboriginal man down the middle, and reassembled the face ear to ear. No longer can we look on the man as a whole because our gaze is split. Andrew is said to have “reclaimed” the image from colonial scientific, anthropological documentation but this presupposes some holistic whole existed a priori to white intervention. The split photograph does alter perception but to what extent it promotes a different reading, a postcolonial gaze that is understood as such by the viewer, is debatable.

Chi Peng poses more interesting gender reversals and masquerades. In Consubstantiality (2004, below) misaligned pairs of people, of androgynous face and hard to distinguish gender, are “reflected” in a pseudo mirror. Consubstantiality references the Christian principle describing the intertwined relationship of the Trinity (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) as being of one essence, one being.

“Chi Peng uses digital technologies to manipulate photographic surfaces and often uses his own body and identity as a homosexual man living in China as a means of creating new ways of looking at himself and at the construction of identity… With powdered faces and bodies, the naked ‘reflections’ press the palms of their hands together across a pane of glass. At first glance, it is as though the photographer is intruding on a private scene, a moment of self-scrutiny in a mirror. However the hands do not quite align and the gazes diverge…”1

This self-reflexivity and its relation to the Lacan’s mirror stage in the development of male and female identity – in which the mirror can be looked at and looks back in return – lends these ethereal images real beauty and presence as they explore the psychology of identity and gender reversal.

“Photographers Ashley Gilbertson and John Imming, and collaborative artists Lyndell Brown and Charles Green have all used cameras to document war, and their works off three distinct views.The common link appears to be an engagement with ideas of the observer and the observed and questioning who is looking at whom, and why?”2 Attempting an apolitical view of the war in Iraq, Gilbertson was embedded with different US military outfits on numerous visits to the country between 2002-2008, reliant on them for his safety. Many of his “objective” photographs deal with representations of surveillance and covert looking from ‘within the ranks’. But not from within enemy ranks. The very fact of his embedding, his lying down within a disciplinary system of control and power, to shoot from one point of view, politicises his gaze.

Brown and Green’s painterly photograph features a tightly choreographed scene, “a market within a military camp in which traders were invited to sell their wares. The scene is indicative, however, of the ‘strained atmosphere’ prevalent when different cultures interact in military situations – seemingly harmonious but concealing the ‘control that was exerted in the selection of traders’.”3 This traditional tableau vivant sees the traders become actors on a stage, their gaze directed towards the female officer at the centre of the group holding a piece of clothing which is blocked from our view. We the viewer are excluded from the circle of gazes; we become other, looking at the looking of the traders. Their gaze and our gaze are at cross-purpose; we wish to become a player on the stage but are denied access and can only observe the spectacle from a distance. Excluded, the viewer feels disempowered, the photographic mise en scène leaving me unmoved.

John Imming’s photographs use found images from the Vietnam war, the first war in which photographers had unrestricted access and were given absolute freedom to record what they saw. Vietnam was a stage for intense exploration, photographers bombarding the public with images of extreme violence. Imming rephotographs images from the television screen using a Leica camera, abstracting them into darkly hued creatures, the borders miming the shape of early television screens. “The images become abstracted and our gaze is ‘reduced’ into blurred shapes of contrasting tones … His photographs force us to slow down the memories of the somewhat ephemeral television imagery and look deeply at what is being portrayed, and how.”4 These photographs fail in that task for they are very surface photographs. The photographs do not have the structure to support such a vision nor the support of beauty to prick the consciousness of the gaze. They are ugly images because war is ugly and abstracting them in order to ask the viewer to look deeply and have an incredible insight into the condition ‘war’ and how it is portrayed simply did not work for me.

The two standout works in the exhibition are Thomas Struth’s luminous photograph Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin (2001, below) and Bill Henson’s seminal (perhaps even ubiquitous) series Untitled 1980/82 (1980-1982, see above) – these photographs seem to be everywhere at the moment, perhaps a change is as good as a rest!

Struth’s magnificent large colour photograph is an investigation into the theatre of seeing. In the photograph Struth directs his cast and choreographs the visitors, the arrangement of the spectators re-assembling the open-ended narrative of the 2nd century Telephos frieze behind. “Similarities between the poses of the audience members and the poses of the carve relief figures gradually emerge, suggesting an unconscious dialogue between the viewers and the objects they regard. The result of Struth’s directorial mode of working is the creation of a type of theatre based on intersecting viewpoints, raising questions about the gaze of the spectator and the process of looking at works of art and each other.”5

Beholders observe beholders and the subjects of vision become historical, according to art historian Wold-Dieter Heilmeyer.

  • The suffused light that falls from the skylight leaves no shadow.
  • A man who casts no shadow has no soul.
  • The shadow according to Jung is the seat of creativity.
    Here there is no depth of field, the sculptures and the figures feel like they are almost on one plane.
  • None of the viewers looks at the camera, they avoid its probing gaze, passively becoming the feminine aspect – like the central raised figure, robbed of head and arms, being gazed upon from all sides. We, the viewer, are looking at the spectacle of the viewers looking at the frieze. Looking at looking the observer becomes the observed (surveillance camera where are you?)
  • Consider the freeze frame of the models as they posed for the sculptor all those years ago; the freeze frame of the sculptures themselves; the freeze frame of the spectators posing for the camera; the freeze frame of the photograph itself; and then consider the freeze frame of time and space as we stand before the photograph looking at it. Then notice the women in the photograph videotaping the scene, another excoriating layer that tears at the fabric of time and looking, that causes lacrimation for our absent soul. What a photograph!

The Henson photographs are presented in a wonderfully musical installation, mimicking the movement of the crowds portrayed. I republish below my comments on this series from the review of the In camera and in public exhibition.

“A selection of photographs from the Crowd Series (1980-1982) by Bill Henson. Snapped in secret these black and white journalistic surveillance photographs (‘taken’ in an around Flinders Street railway station in Melbourne) have a brooding intensity and melancholic beauty. Henson uses a flattened perspective that is opposed to the principles of linear perspective in these photographs. Known as The Art of Describing6 and much used in Dutch still life painting of the 17th century to give equal weight to objects within the image plane, here Henson uses the technique to emphasise the mass and jostle of the crowd with their “waiting, solemn and compliant” people.

“When exhibiting the full series, Henson arranges the works into small groupings that create an overall effect of aberrant movement and fragmentation. From within these bustling clusters of images, individual faces emerge like spectres of humanity that will once again dissolve into the crowd … all apparently adrift in the flow of urban life. The people in these images have an anonymity that allows them to represent universal human experiences of alienation, mortality and fatigue.”7

Henson states,”The great beauty in the subject comes, for me, from the haunted space, that unbridgeable gap – which separates the profound intimacy and solitude of our interior world from the ‘other’… The business of how a child’s small hand appearing between two adults at a street crossing can suggest both a vulnerability, great tenderness, and yet also contain within it all of the power that beauty commands, is endlessly fascinating to me.”8 His observation is astute but for me it is the un/awareness of the people in these photographs that are their beauty, their insertion into the crowd but their isolation from the crowd and from themselves. As Maggie Finch observes, it is “that feeling of being both alone and private in a crowd, thus free but also exposed.”9

In the sociologist Erving Goffman’s terms the photographs can be seen as examples of what he calls “civil inattention”10 which is a carefully monitored demonstration of what might be called polite estrangement, the “facework” as we glance at people in the crowd, holding the gaze of the other only briefly, then looking ahead as each passes the other.

“Civil inattention is the most basic type of facework commitment involved in encounters with strangers in circumstances of modernity. It involves not just the use of the face itself, but the subtle employment of bodily posture and positioning which gives off the message “you may trust me to be without hostile intent” – in the street, public buildings, trains or buses, or at ceremonial gatherings, parties, or other assemblies. Civil inattention is TRUST as ‘background noise’ – not as a random collection of sounds, but as carefully restrained and controlled social rhythms. It is characteristic of what Goffman calls “unfocused interaction.””11

This is what I believe Henson’s photographs are about. Not so much the tenderness of the child’s hand but a fear of engagement with the ‘other’. As such they can be seen as image precursors to the absence/presence of contemporary communication and music technologies. How many times do people talk on their mobile phone or listen to iPods in crowds, on trams and trains, physically present but absenting themselves from interaction with other people. Here but not here; here and there. The body is immersed in absent presence, present and not present, conscious and not conscious, aware and yet not aware of the narratives of a ‘recipro/city failure’. A failure to engage with the light of place, the time of exposure and an attentiveness to the city.

As Susan Stewart insightfully observes,

“To walk in the city is to experience the disjuncture of partial vision/partial consciousness … The walkers of the city travel at different speeds, their steps like handwriting of a personal mobility. In the milling of the crowd is the choking of class relations, the interruption of speed, and the machine.”12

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



1/ Finch, Maggie. Looking at Looking: The Photographic Gaze. Catalogue. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2011, p. 10

2/ Ibid., p. 16

3/ Ibid., p. 21

4/ Ibid., p. 24

5/ Ibid., p. 7

6/ See Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. University Of Chicago Press, 1984

7/ AnonBILL HENSON: early work from the MGA collection. Education Resource. A Monash Gallery of Art Travelling Exhibition [Online] Cited 14/10/2011. No longer available online

8/ Henson, Bill quoted in the exhibition catalogue. First published as a pdf for the exhibition In camera and in public Curated by Naomi Cass. Centre for Contemporary Photography, 16 September – 23 October 2011

9/ Stephens, Andrew. “Who’s watching you?” in The Saturday Age. 23rd September 2011 [Online] Cited 14/10/2011

10/ See  Goffman, E. Behaviour in Public Places. New York: Free Press, 1963

11/ Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991, pp. 82-83

12/ Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p. 2. Prologue



Bill Henson. 'Untitled 1980/82' 1980-82


Bill Henson (Australian, b. 1955)
Untitled 1980/82
From the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980-1982
Gelatin silver photograph
43.0 x 38.8cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Anonymous gift, 1993
© Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


Bill Henson. 'Untitled 1980/82' 1980-82


Bill Henson (Australian, b. 1955)
Untitled 1980/82
From the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980-1982
Gelatin silver photograph
29.2 x 47cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Anonymous gift, 1993
© Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney



On 30 September the National Gallery of Victoria will present Looking at Looking: The Photographic Gaze, a unique exhibition exploring how photography can construct particular ways of looking. Looking at Looking will feature works by 10 Australian and international photographers including 20 photographs from Bill Henson’s Untitled 1980-82 series.

Drawn entirely from the NGV Collection, this exhibition will bring together a fascinating selection of photographs inviting the viewer to consider the diverse nature of the photographic gaze and explore the complex relationships between the subject, the photographer and the audience. The displayed photographs will include observations of people in crowds, surveillance images from war zones and photographs that explore different ways of looking at gender, race and identity.

Maggie Finch, Assistant Curator, Photography, NGV said: “The act of photographing people involves a process of observation and scrutiny. At times, photographers remain detached and anonymous while at other times they are complicit, directing their subjects and encouraging specific actions.”

Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director, NGV, said: “In the NGV’s 150th year this exhibition allows visitors to explore the dynamic relationship between the observer and the observed. This is a rare opportunity to view these photographs in a truly unique context.”

Looking at Looking will consider the anonymous photographer, one who is able to look without being looked at in return and consequently see more than otherwise possible. This idea is explored in Bill Henson’s series Untitled 1980-82, where the artist photographed people on city streets. Hung in a dense display, these photographs provide a psychological study of the nature of people when in a crowd.

Looking at Looking will feature works by Brook Andrew, Chi Peng, Anne Ferran, Ashley Gilbertson, Charles Green and Lyndell Brown, Bill Henson, John Immig, Thomas Struth and David Thomas.

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria


Thomas Struth. 'Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin' 2001


Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin
Type C photograph
144.1 x 219.9cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of The Bowness Family Fund for Contemporary Photography, 2008
© 2011 Thomas Struth


David Thomas. 'Amid history 2 (Large version)' 2006


David Thomas (born Northern Ireland 1951, arrived Australia 1958)
Amid history 2 (Large version)
Enamel paint on type C photograph on aluminium and plastic
100 x 145cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2007 © the artist


Ashley Gilbertson. 'A member of the Mahdi Army RPG team' 2004 from the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot series 2004


Ashley Gilbertson (Australian, b. 1978)
A member of the Mahdi Army RPG team
From the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot series 2004
Digital type C print
66.5 x 99.8cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2009
© Ashley Gilbertson / VII Network


John Immig. 'No title (T.V. images)' 1975-76


John Immig (Dutch/Australian, b. 1940)
No title (T.V. images)
From the Vietnam series 1975-1976
Gelatin silver photograph
20.2 x 25.3cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board, 1977 © John Immig


Chi Peng. 'Consubstantiality' 2004


Chi Peng (Chinese, b. 1981)
Type C photograph
87.5 x 116.7cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the NGV Foundation, 2004
© Chi Peng, courtesy of Red Gate Gallery, Beijing


Charles Green and Lyndell Brown. 'Afghan traders with soldiers, market, Taran Kowt Base Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan' 2007 printed 2009


Charles Green (Australian, b. 1953)
Lyndell Brown (Australian, b. 1961)
Afghan traders with soldiers, market, Taran Kowt Base Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan
2007 printed 2009
From The approaching storm series 2009
Inkjet print
155.0 x 107.5cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2009
© Courtesy of the Artists and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne



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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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