"Blow-Up and the photography revolution"
Antonioni's portrait of the Swinging Sixties set the template for the hell-raising photographer. A new exhibition in Vienna explores its lasting influence on photography.
May 17th, 2014
Is there another film that seems to crystallise a moment in time as perfectly as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up? Viewed today, it seems like a heightened “Greatest Hits” compilation of London’s swinging period: the buoyant Herbie Hancock soundtrack; the Yardbirds gig, complete with a cameo from a young, crimson-pouted Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck smashing up his guitar; Jane Birkin’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it full-frontal nude scene that ushered in more lenient censorship in cinema.
A new book and exhibition at Vienna’s Albertina gallery seek to delve deeper into the context of the 1966 film, with a mix of photographs from the film’s set, shots that inspired the film, and works that were influenced by it such as Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London III, a screen-printed version of the epochal image of Mick Jagger handcuffed to art dealer Robert Fraser. “It was a time of social revolution,” says the documentary photographer Don McCullin, who was hired by Antonioni for £500 to provide the famous shots of Vanessa Redgrave with her mystery man in Charlton’s Maryon Park. “That’s why Antonioni chose to come to England, I suspect – he saw it as an uptight country that was suddenly breaking open like a paper bag.”
Antonioni was fascinated by London’s fashion photography boom – in particular, the “black trinity” of David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, gobby London photographers who matched sex with spontaneity in a string of shoots for such publications as Vogue, Queen, and Harpers Bazaar. They were immortalised in Francis Wyndham’s 1964 Sunday Times article, “The Model Makers”. “The only thing between you and the girl is the camera. A three-legged phallus,” explained Bailey, in a quote that reads like an elevator pitch for Blow-Up.
In preparing for the film, the Italian director sent a detailed questionnaire to these and other London-based fashion photographers, resulting in the movie’s snap-happy protagonist, Thomas. The film became an intricate process of art imitating pop life. After Bailey himself declined to appear in the project, Terence Stamp was lined up to play Thomas, but lost out after Antonioni caught David Hemmings in a Dylan Thomas adaptation in Hampstead. It opens with an American photographer shooting the model Donyale Luna on an east London rooftop. The interiors were shot at the studio of John Cowan, with Sixties supermodels Veruschka, Peggy Moffitt and Jill Kennington posing for a baiting Hemmings. (Kennington says the direction in the movie was more restricted than in real-life shoots – “We had to stand where we were told, we couldn’t run around the studio.”)
"For me, [that period] was all about collaboration," Kennington says. "I heard Bailey could be rude but I didn't work with him much. People like John Cowan, Helmut Newton and Terence Donovan would give you creative freedom as a model. If you got closely involved, working on a spread was like making a mini-movie."
Blow-Up isn’t a simple glorification of the photographer-as-hellraiser. It also highlighted the political and social ambiguities that resonated during the Sixties boom. At the film’s start we see Thomas leaving a Peckham dosshouse; later we see him leafing through a book of hard-hitting street photography, which was actually a collection of Don McCullin’s early work.
“David Bailey and me go back a long time, but I did streetwalking and slept in hostels with down and outs, while he of course slept with all the great beauties – we were as different as chalk and cheese,” says McCullin, now 79, who photographed atrocities in Vietnam and Biafra during the period. “If I’d gone into the fashion world it would have destroyed me because I would have had too many affairs. Bailey was a very strong person and kept control.”
Perhaps to ensure an authentic naivety in the shots, Antonioni did not tell McCullin that there was a body in the bushes when he was shooting in Maryon Park. “The whole thing left a cloudiness over the plot for me,” he recalls. “I just thought he wanted me to take a picture of these bushes – even I found it a bit confusing. Some sticklers have bemoaned technical inaccuracies such as the ludicrously quick speed with which Thomas's shots are supposed to have been made in the darkroom. But the romance shone through, influencing photographers such as Mario Testino, Hans Feurer and Miles Aldridge to set up studios in London ever since. Model Jill Kennington, too, moved on to photography after her career in front of the camera.
In many ways, Blow-Up was an uncannily prescient film. Antonioni understood the importance of the sudden shifts in fashion and pop in the 1960s, blurring the line between reality and fiction in a way that seems to have presaged our own self-referential age. Yet to this day the film remains an enigma, to even those who had a hand in making it: "To me it seemed like a fruit salad: it had a bit of this and a bit of that," says McCullin, who is still working at 79. "I've seen it about twice in my life and I am still left in a quandary as to what it's all about." It is perhaps exactly this mystery that has seen the film endure.
David Bailey [Wikipedia]
Terence Donovan [Wikipedia]
Brian Duffy [Wikipedia]