Vienna, the summer of 1977, a young man is seated on a dark charcoal velvet couch in an upper room of the Kunsthistorisches Museum staring at Titian\u2019s Nymph and Shepherd painted some 400 years before. He\u2019s been there every day for a week now, mesmerised. Sunlight gently dripping from skylights overhead, he\u2019s absorbed in the oscillations of luminosity as clouds pass over the sun. Outside, across the topiary of the Maria-Theresien Platz, atop the Natural History Museum is a statue of Captain James Cook, erected in 1771 as a symbol of a new age of discovery. Our young man is in Vienna on a very different kind of quest.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe room was breathing, all the information would slide away into the gloom, a dim obscurity. Then the sun would come out and all of a sudden you\u2019d see this opalescent flesh start to sparkle.\u201d The young man was Bill Henson, the Titian his obsession.\r\n\r\nForty years later we\u2019re seated upstairs in Henson\u2019s grotto of a loft in the inner Melbourne suburb of Northcote. Over his shoulder an English pastoral painting in the style of Turner emanates from a wall painted a velvety brown-black, the shade Bill suggests galleries employ to best offset his work. He\u2019s wearing what appears to be the same pale green corduroy trousers and grey sweater he was wearing when I visited him a week before to begin talking about this story. \u201cI think the hole\u2019s bigger in this one,\u201d he muses, tugging at the left sleeve and confessing he always buys the same thing. A knitted tea cosy, a snatch of spindly japonica, disparate trinkets; the setting is at once humble and sumptuous, a compelling paradox I\u2019ve come to recognise as very Henson.\r\n\r\nNext door, his library is not so much lined with books as it is brimful of them. A gaggle of Anglepoise lamps crane over volumes stacked in the centre of the room. The mix of natural and incandescent light creates an amber glow, a heady honey hue in which everyone and thing looks pleasing. The lamps have not been moved since my previous visit, but the books laid open at various points around the room have changed. It\u2019s easy to imagine Bill Henson wiling his days away, swooning from one first edition to the next. The vision would be fey if the reality weren\u2019t so intense.\r\n\r\n\u201cIn that corner over there,\u201d he says, indicating a black swivel chair beneath a west-facing window where the vigour of afternoon daylight creates greatest tension, \u201cthat\u2019s where I sit with my feet on the desk and look at my contact proof sheets. I have music going sometimes, and I have a white Chinagraph pencil and I have my magnifying glass and I go back and forth over them and I might do that for a day, a \r\nweek, six months or maybe a year. I will have a wonderful time trying to sift out the shots I think are going to work when I blow them up.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe blowing up (not \u201cenlarging\u201d, Henson\u2019s is a frank lexicon) happens downstairs in what would best be described as his atelier \u2013 if an atelier can be kitted out with rare books, museum-grade antiquities, and dozens if not hundreds of large format photographs sitting one behind the other on robust timber easels. Hanging from an iron I-beam, two wooden gymnast rings hover on leather straps above a satiny, poured concrete floor. Bill Henson is one of Australia\u2019s greatest living artists, certainly our most cerebral \u2013 and perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, our most corporeal.\r\n\r\nFor most of his adult life, Bill\u2019s been a runner, clocking up at least ten kilometres a day \u201cas a form of relaxed meditation\u201d. For the past decade he\u2019s worked with a personal trainer by the name of Ozgur three days a week, two hours a day. Plus the high-speed, twenty-kilometre bike ride from Northcote to the gym in South Melbourne and back. \u201cThe brain is in the body, and when working out it\u2019s as if what Nietzsche referred to as the great intelligence of the body takes over. You switch off some intellectualised aspect of life for a time.\u201d\r\n\r\nST: So you have a body of steel?\r\n\r\nBH: I don\u2019t know, it\u2019s got all this old skin on it.\r\n\r\nST: When you\u2019re photographing, do you reach the same sort of intensity as you attain in your physical training?\r\n\r\nBH: It\u2019s very intense in that it\u2019s a big deal which means that I\u2019m quite anxious. There\u2019s a high level of anxiety mixed with anticipation for which the Germans have a perfect word, erwartung. I\u2019m not necessarily outwardly stressed, it\u2019s just that it\u2019s almost impossible for me to pick up a camera. I pick up a camera when I have absolutely no choice. It\u2019s not a pastime where I play around.\r\n\r\nThat pilgrimage to Vienna in his early twenties happened shortly after Henson first exhibited his work, part of a group show. He\u2019d been enrolled in the Photography department of the Prahran College of Advanced Education under the tutelage of noted portrait photographer, Athol Shmith. While Shmith and fellow Prahran College director John Cato recognised Henson\u2019s very evident talent, his repeated absenteeism and failure to complete assignments led them to recommend he ditch academia. \u201cI\u2019d rock up after not being there for three of four months and they\u2019d just shake their heads and say, We love the pictures you\u2019re making but there\u2019s no need for you to be here.\u201d He didn\u2019t need to be told twice.\r\n\r\nReleased into the wild, the artist as a young man began taking portraits. Of schoolgirls, of passersby, of budding ballerinas. That first exhibition incorporated images shot at a dance class held in a suburban church hall. \u201cThe light was astonishing. The people in the photographs could have been doing something else, gymnastics, painting, it didn\u2019t matter to me what they were up to. I made selections, zeroed in on a couple of particular people who had a presence, a bearing that intrigued me.\u201d\r\n\r\nIn a letter dated 14th October, 1974, one perspicacious collector, St Kilda gallerist Bruce Pollard, contacted Henson via the office of Athol Shmith offering to pay him $25 for the picture titled Carlton Afternoon, including delivery (\u201cit would be great if you could take it to him,\u201d wrote Shmith\u2019s assistant).\r\n\r\nToday, of course, Bill Henson is one of the most celebrated artists in the land. And while his work has evolved from those hazy, grainy early days (\u201cSarah Moon copied me!\u201d he quips, though I suggest they\u2019re more Deborah Turbeville), the intensity of his gaze has never waivered. \u201cIn the end it comes down to beauty. I love beautiful things. No, that sounds weird, I\u2019ll rephrase that. It\u2019s all about what attracts the eye, and that varies tremendously from one person to the next.\u201d\r\n\r\nST: Are all your senses engaged, or is it uniquely the visual that concerns you?\r\n\r\nBH: We first covet with our eyes, it\u2019s a longing for things. You can be looking at a sunset, or a beautiful piece of fabric, or a beautiful object or you can be looking at a beautiful person. To you, they have a certain grace, the way they move, the way they turn a corner of a street. It could be anything, but it\u2019s rich. For better or worse I\u2019ve always been drunk on the look of things. Drunk on the weather and the light. At school, I was always picked last for the football team because I couldn\u2019t keep my eye on the ball. I was too absorbed in what was happening in nature, too busy looking at what the light was doing in the trees, or watching the occasional kid who just happened to move in a way that was distracting, disconcerting.\r\n\r\nFor Bill Henson, distraction and disconcertion are positive forces which, if harnessed with a deft hand and adroit eye can result in an extraordinary frisson. It\u2019s the shiver of early onset Stendhal syndrome I sense whenever I encounter his images.\r\n\r\nYet distracting and disconcerting are also charges levelled at Henson\u2019s work, oft times arising from an irrational puritanical reaction, a self-imposed verboten. Spending time in his studio, immersed in the viscous beauty of his imagery I had to confess to having no language to describe the effect. \u201cGood,\u201d he says, looking pleased.\r\n\r\n\u201cWhether it\u2019s his landscapes or his still lives or his nudes, they all speak to me about the beauty of living and the pain of living,\u201d says art collector Morna Seres, a long time admirer of Henson\u2019s work. \u201cThere\u2019s something in the cusp of pubescence, the state between childhood and adulthood that really exercises that. Whether he has one or two or five figures in a picture, they\u2019re very alone. They\u2019re in their own space, there is connection but then there isn\u2019t. It reminds me of my own aloneness, it speaks to the drama of the human condition.\u201d\r\n\r\nHenson\u2019s home is where he plays out the drama of being human with his partner, painter Louise Hearman and their Staffordshire Terrier, Mr Pigs. It was Hearman who found the abandoned, double-height, red brick former stables dating from the 1880s. \u201cIt was essentially sections of rusting corrugated iron roof tacked onto some very old, diesel- and dust-encrusted beams,\u201d Henson remembers, \u201cand on a windy day the roof breathed in and out like a lung.\u201d\r\n\r\nBut the light was magnificent and the surrounding paddocks made it seem a bucolic idyll. Since then the meadow has been occupied by townhouses and the once desolate High Street strip mall has given rise to a new hipster enclave. A little over a decade ago, they bought the neighbouring property, converting the hangar-like garage into a semi-alfresco photo studio and trucking in a luscious garden of fully grown palms. Perfectly isolated from the outside world, it\u2019s a little bit of Palermo on the 86 tramline.\r\n\r\nHenson and Hearman met when she was a student at the Victorian College of the Arts and he had been invited by the dean to talk to the Photography undergraduates. \u201cI thought, Well, I\u2019m not going to talk to them about photography. I\u2019m going to play music to them. So I just played classical music to them in the darkroom. Louise was upstairs in the painting studio, heard the music and it drew her down the stairs. I smelt her before I saw her. She was going through a grunge phase, hadn\u2019t washed for about six months, was full-on the filthy art student. And as she came along the passageway I smelt this gin-wine-one-hundred-percent New York subway dero\u2026\u201d\r\n\r\nST: Was it love at first sight?\r\n\r\nBH: Not quite. She said she was interested in music, so I gave her a list of things. I think I was playing Second Vienna School, so Berg and Webern and Schoenberg, and she went on her way. I came back to the VCA from time \r\nto time to do a bit of teaching, and we just became friends. That was 1981 or \u201982.\r\n\r\nST: Gosh, you\u2019re an old couple now.\r\n\r\nBH: (Assumes cod British accent) Oh yes, terribly old, terribly old-fashioned.\r\n\r\nHearman\u2019s portrait of Henson garnered her the lucrative Moran Prize in 2014. Like most of her work, it is typically described as \u2018dreamlike\u2019 and \u2018cinematic\u2019 \u2013 words that are often also attached to Henson\u2019s photographs. In many ways, the pair seem to inhabit parallel worlds, he with his cavernous atelier ground-floor left, she with her airy studio ground-floor right; a steep, narrow, black-walled staircase bisecting the building between these two creational zones.\r\n\r\nTo be clear, Henson and Hearman have nothing of the old couple about them. In fact, they\u2019re quite childlike \u2013 perhaps more Enfants du Paradis than Enfants Terribles but either way happily wrapped up in a world of their own devising. In both the physical and metaphysical senses. Their shared home is a zone of its own, a high-walled retreat, an oasis, a bastion. A place that, should the high, metal gate slide aside and Mr Pigs waddle his welcome to let you in, you enter as if into a state of grace.\r\n\r\nAsked to describe his own work, Henson quickly slips into faux art critic shtick, and mugs: \u201c\u2026\u2018Something about what goes missing in the shadows animating the speculative capacity in a way that highlights\u2026 something about just the fragment suggesting more than the whole\u2026.\u2019 They\u2019re all clich\u00e9s but in fact they\u2019re no less true for being so.\u201d\r\n\r\nDespite himself, Henson has evoked the very genius loci \u2013 the elusive spirit \u2013 of this magical place in a gritty side street off a busy thoroughfare that leads to a suburban nowhere. It\u2019s the invisible presence in so many of his images, a place/non-place that exists in the gloaming, entre chien et loup \u2013 between dog and wolf, as the French call the shadowy twilight zone of endless possibilities.