Why Blow Up Remains My Favorite Photography Film

(even if it’s not really about photography)

by Brian Edwards

Some people are bullfighters. Some people are politicians. I’m a photographer
- Thomas, Blow-Up

I remember seeing the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow Up [1] in the movie theatre, way back in 1966 just after its released. I went with two friends, Rich Levinson and Kevin Wood (both deceased); we did this a lot in those days - Friday or Saturday night at the local theater in Chatsworth, California, right next to the same Mason Avenue Thriftymart we visited every Thursday afternoon to scour the latest shipment of comic books. It never really mattered what was playing, we just went and saw what was showing. I am not even sure if I really understood then what this film was really about. I saw it more as a mystery about a photographer (Thomas - played by David Hemmings) who thought he had witnessed and recorded a murder but was left without any proof of the crime when one of the subjects of these images (Jane - portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave), or her agents, brakes into Thomas’ studio and steals the film, negatives, and all but one print that remains the last vestige of evidence of the crime Thomas was convinced he had witnessed. Unable to convince anyone without evidence, the remainder of film sees Thomas go through his own version of Five Steps of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) as he struggles to come to terms with this loss and the realization it brings. [2]

 Thomas and Jane[3]

Thomas and Jane[3]

Based in London during the mid-1960s, Blow-Up is filled with shots of swinging sixties London including one that takes place in a nightclub where a pre-Led Zepplin version of the Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) perform and we even witness Jeff Beck go early Pete Townsend and smash an electric guitar on stage and toss the pieces into the crowd. Of course, our photographer-protagonist is there to snatch the guitar neck which he later discards after leaving the nightclub. Why did he want it in the first place? There are other wonderful shots of factories and other working-class areas of London that anyone interested in space and place will appreciate. An earlier scene where Thomas photographs the model Verushka (portrayed by herself) is one of the most allegorical scenes I have ever witnessed in film and probably generated its own controversy in its day. Antonioni is also careful not to romanticize the Thomas character too much. He refers to models as bloody bitches and laments over all of the queers and poodles he sees in a re-developing London neighborhood. He is as much hustler as he is artist and maybe that dampens some of the empathy we might have for Thomas as he goes through this ordeal.

 Thomas and Verushka [4]

Thomas and Verushka [4]


But there is an interesting corollary at play with this film. A generation of photographers were inspired by this film to become photographers, and to this day, the scenes of Thomas shooting and developing film and printing are candy for many of us who still cling to the notion that film represents a more real and more tangible version of the art and craft of photography. I often wonder, though, when Minor White claims that “one should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are” he might refer to this film. [5] I really doubt that this film inspired that quote probably just as much as I doubt that the same quote inspired Antonioni to make Blow Up, but what remains is that this film is not really about photography, and it is precisely this that makes it so extraordinary.  

But what is this film really about? I have heard scores of hypotheses, but I think the theme of this film is quite simple; it is about the illusion of control. Early in the film, Thomas sees himself, and behaves accordingly, as one in control of his destiny and even that of others. When he tells his models to close their eyes, they close their eyes, and they stay closed even after he walks away. It reminds me of the story of the Centurion from the book of Matthew, “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed”. [6]

As much as I appreciate Antonioni using photography as a backdrop and frame of reference for this film, I often find myself imagining the film without a single reference to photography. The main character could have been, after all, a cheesemaker who thought he made the best mozzarella in town only to be told of a recent entrant into the fray who made it even better. Perhaps less exciting, but equally devastating to our protagonist Thomas as he struggles to come to terms with his utter and complete lack of control over his own destiny.

The only remaining question I have about the film is how Thomas could have afforded that wonderful Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III he drove in the film.

 

Sources:

[1] Michelangelo Antonioni (director), Blow-Up, 1966, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/

[2] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (author) and Ira Brock M.D. (forward), On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families, Scribner; Reprint Edition, 2014.

[3] Michelangelo Antonio, Thomas and Jane, Blow-Up, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/mediaviewer/rm829337600

[4] Michelangelo Antonio, Thomas and Verushka, Blow-Up, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/mediaviewer/rm4291763968

[5] Minor White, 22 Quotes by Photographer Minor White, John Paul Caponigro, http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/12041/22-quotes-by-photographer-minor-white/

[6] BibleGateway, The Faith of the Centurion, Matthew 8:5-13, New International Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+8:5-13