Blow-Up: Photography and swinging sixties London

Blow-Up: Photography and swinging sixties London

The classic 1960s film Blow-Up had quite and impact on the photographers featured in our exhibition The New Photography. Here, photography curator Athol McCredie reflects on the movie, its themes, and some of the ways it connected to New Zealand photography.

In June 1967 an advertisement in Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper announced screenings of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up with the come-on: “It slashes at the mini-skirted ‘dolce vita’ of swinging London where people don’t care about anything (as long as it’s the scene). Not life…not sex…not even murder!”

Advertisement for Blow-Up, Evening Post, 3 July 1967.

The lurid descriptions pulled in the punters and it became the biggest grossing art-house film to date, and a signature film of the 1960s. It particularly appealed to anyone with an interest in photography, for its central character Thomas (played by David Hemmings) was a fashion and documentary photographer.

Blow-Up‘s influence on New Zealand photographers

Auckland photographer Max Oettli went three times and dyed his corduroy jacket green in explicit imitation of that worn by Hemmings.

In Wellington, John Daley saw it three times also and remembered the envy he felt at the photographer’s expensive Nikon cameras, convertible Rolls Royce and nubile young models cavorting in his studio.

And for Gary Baigent, the 1967 conjunction in Auckland of Blow-Up with the MoMA touring exhibition The Photographer’s Eye and his own book The Unseen City: 123 photographs of Auckland made it seem like photography was suddenly ‘in’, and led to all sorts of people picking up cameras and talking about photography.

John Daley, c.1968. Photo by John Fields. Te Papa (O.044179)

Swinging Sixties London

Certainly, Antonioni captured the fact that photography was very much an integral part of Swinging Sixties London. Fashion photographers such as David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy were key figures in its creation and dissemination and, like the models Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree, became stars in their own right.

For photographers in New Zealand the film provided a sort of validation. They were not necessarily fashion photographers themselves, but the photographer character in Blow-Up is also shown working on a personal project – a book of documentary photographs of down-and-outers in London.

For the young male photographers in New Zealand, Antonioni may have made photography look very cool, but they perhaps missed reading the film as a scathing indictment of the Swinging Sixties. The characters are shown as self-absorbed and amoral, seeking meaning in the superficialities of fashion. Thomas, for example, does not seem to be photographing the homeless out of any social concern. Nor does he bother contacting the police when he has evidence of a murder.

Larger Truths

But Antonioni is intent on larger truths than allowed by social critique. A key scene is the Yardbirds gig where Jeff Beck smashes a guitar on stage and throws part of it into the crowd. The previously impassive audience are suddenly galvanised and fight tooth and nail over the neck of the guitar. Thomas manages to grab it and rush outside. But on the street, with his pursuers lost, he glances at his prize briefly and then just carelessly throws it on the footpath. A bystander picks it up, examines it and also discards it. In a brief space of time the piece of guitar has gone from something of great value (a rock star’s guitar) to just a piece of junk. Value is clearly all a matter of context: we value what other people desire. Or put another way, meaning and significance are not intrinsic but a matter of belief.

A Murder Mystery?

The film is nominally a murder mystery, for in photographing what Thomas believes will be an uplifting final image for his book – of a couple embracing in a park – he unknowingly captures what appears to be a hand pointing a gun amongst the bushes. This is only evident on greatly enlarging (blowing up) one of his shots. Thomas believes he has prevented a murder, for the woman being embraced (played by Vanessa Redgrave) runs after him when she spots him taking the photographs and demands the film. But Thomas’s further examination of the blow-ups suggests there may be a body in the bushes. However, with the image breaking down under magnification into film grain the evidence is unclear. So Thomas returns to the scene at night and discovers there is indeed a body in the bushes. Yet revisiting with his camera next morning he finds no trace. Was there ever a body? Can photography tell us anything reliable about the world? What is real?

David Hemmings as Thomas in Blow-Up, 1966. Arthur Evans photo.

Photography, Truth and Illusion

This, to me is where the deeper resonance for our New Zealand photographers must lie, for they too were using photography to decipher their experience. Photography, unlike older visual media where everything is determined by the maker, offered the opportunity to see beyond what was intended. But what is seen can be ambiguous and open to different interpretations. Thomas’s previous bullying and confident relation to the world comes apart as he realises he has unconsciously recorded something whose truth can’t be confirmed one way or the other.

The mystery of the murder (if in fact there was one) is never resolved, and the film’s ending left many puzzled, which might have been part of the reason for the repeat visits by our photographers. After leaving the park and its now absent body, Thomas encounters a mime group playing tennis. He watches as two of them pretend to hit a ball back and forth. When the ‘ball’ is batted out of the court he is persuaded to pick it up and throw it back. Now we hear the sound of the imaginary ball struck by the players’ racquets as they continue the game. Thomas has switched from an observer to a participant in an illusion. The movie ends with Antonioni’s camera looking down from high above and Thomas fading out upon the grass, suggesting, some say, that we too have been complicit in an illusion – that of the cinema.

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