It's very rare that a person is afforded the chance to meet an idol, let alone the opportunity to interview them in a room with their work. For me, that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity occurred with Bill Henson when he came to Newcastle to generously offer his time sharing his wisdom with an enraptured audience. I arrived early which gave me a chance to settle in to a back row seat while Henson spoke to over 150 high school students who'd come to listen to his lecture.
He was so generous. He obviously wanted to share his talent and his passion - calling regularly for questions and spending an extraordinary amount of time giving detailed, intelligent answers.
I hope most of them went home inspired.
I know I did.
Newcastle Art Gallery is currently hosting Across Time, a collection of Henson's work stretching from around 1974 to the early 2000s. Breathtaking works from his Paris Opera Garnier series feature, as well as haunting landscapes with a saturation of colour that makes you sink deep into the frame, pondering what's in the richly-hued depths.
With a Bill Henson display there is one consistency - the walls. They're a special colour that Henson specifically mixed to showcase his work perfectly. It's a deep, dark, velvety brown. Rich, yet unobtrusive. On this background the works pop.
For an artist, it's rare that they have the chance to see their work in a collection once it leaves their hands. It's only when it's on display that they have the opportunity to explore it again, seen through a curator's eyes. I loved watching Bill Henson rediscovering his works in Newcastle, and discussing the cohesion of colour in all these works, as diverse as they are.
Henson says that darkness expands the suggestive potential of a photograph. "The palette is quite subdued in the Opera Garnier works - the light on the audience is the light that's reflected from the stage. And there's uplighting too - which we're not used to - they create an ethereal and unreal atmosphere. When they asked me to do that commission it was interesting as they told me it could be anything - I could design sets, photograph the building anything. But watching the audience gather together with a sense of anticipation, I found that fascinating."
These works are stunning - with a haunting quality that's beautiful and begs for closer inspection. Bill Henson has a very distinctive photographic style, it's considered more painterly than your typical photographs. I asked him how he came upon this style, and he said he didn't set out to develop one - everything's just determined by the individual picture.
He works in groups of photographs, considering each of them as they relate to the other - which is probably how this style is formed - we're seeing a world through his eyes.
That's a true artist, someone who doesn't work thinking about what an audience wants to see - but what he wants to show them. His final piece of advice to the students, and something that's still ringing in my ears, is: "Be true to yourself and don't stop working."
Seeing photographs like these hung in an exhibition is an experience that many deny themselves, "The funny thing about photography is it suffers more than any other artform in that if people think they've seen a reproduction somewhere they think they've seen it," said Henson. "But it's really important to have the experience of seeing the photographs in person - hung with so many others. Seeing an exhibition gives you so much scope for your imagination. Contemplation and deeper examination requires silence and a little bit of time."
Bill Henson: Across Time is on display at Newcastle Art Gallery until February 2 - don't miss it!
And what do you do when you meet an internationally-renowned photographer? You take a selfie with them and pop it on Instagram. Natch.