THE CONTINUING LEGACY OF BLOW UP
The Movie That Launched A Thousand Photographers
By Bill Dobbins
Once upon a time, the world was not full of thousands of would-be professional photographers. A youngster with artistic aspirations might well have wanted to be novelist like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac. Or a film director like Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford.
The watershed year for photography was 1966, the date when Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie Blow Up was released. The plot revolves around a swinging sixties photographer in London with the main character based on David Bailey, one of the most famous photographers of the era. David Hemmings plays Thomas, a very Beatle-like figure who lives a hip lifestyle, photographing everything from fashion to the homeless while having lots of sex with beautiful young models. In the course of reviewing some photos in the darkroom he sees what may or may not be evidence or a murder and subsequently has encounters with a mysterious women, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who may or may not be a murderer.
The late film critic Roger Ebert reviewed Blow Up and declared it a great film. Michelangelo “Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” opened in America two months before I became a film critic, and colored my first years on the job with its lingering influence. It was the opening salvo of the emerging “film generation,” which quickly lined up outside “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Weekend” (1968), “The Battle of Algiers,” “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.” It was the highest-grossing art film to date, was picked as the best film of 1967 by the National Society of Film Critics, and got Oscar nominations for screenplay and direction. Today, you rarely hear it mentioned.”
You could compare the effect of Blow Up on future photographers with that of the movie Top Gun on recruitment for fighter pilots – which saw an increase of interest of some 500 percent. Once Blow Up was released you saw a tremendous increase in (mostly) young men walking around with 35mm cameras hanging around their necks. There was an increase in applications to photo photo schools. In fact, there was a split between guys wanting to get laid by learning to play guitar and those who decided the best way to achieve that goal was with a camera.
David Bailey, the real life photographer on whom the Blow Up character was based, really did have a kind of fairly tale life. He was famous and sexy and famously sexy as the hippy-dippy, Carnaby Street, counterculture 60s got into full swing. He “dated” top models of the period like Jen Shrimpton and was married four times, including to fabulous French actress Catherine Deneuve. You could argue that Bailey’s real life was far more exciting than that of the photographer in the movie but Antonioni managed to combine a romantic view of photography with an insightful view of 60s London and a puzzling murder mystery. (Watch this David Bailey documentary on YouTube.)
Top photographer of the 1950s and before had a much less sensational reputation. Whatever their personal adventures, you rarely saw Irving Penn or Richard Alvedon featured in the gossip pages. The same was true of top models. They were famous, up to a point, and made a good living. They traveled widely. Suzy Parker made movies, but most didn’t. You had to be very interested or in the industry to be very aware to know the names of Dovima, Jean Patchett or Lisa Fonssagrives.
The 1960s was the beginning of what would turn into the era of the supermodel. In addition to Jean Shrimpton, there were others like Twiggy, Penelope Tree, and (my favorite) Veruschka – who was featured in the iconic sexy photo scene in Blow Up where Thomas ends up straddling her in a pantomime of their having sex. That scene probably sold more cameras to young men than any other in movie history.
The gradually increasing interest in photography during that period seems fairly tame compared to the stampede we see today. But it pays to remember that to be a photographer back in the days of film you actually had to know something about basic photography. You had to understand the relationship between film speed, aperture and shutter speed. You can to make a choice of film type and the development process. Shooting BW, either you are somebody else had to know how to make prints. There is a reason books by Ansel Adams on all these aspects of photography sold so well. You had to know a great deal just to know barely enough.
In the earliest days of photography it took a great deal of expertise and training to work as a photographer. Imagine coating a plate with an emulsion, exposing it before it dried and then putting it through developed and fixer solutions almost immediately. And keep in mind some photographers did this in the field, traveling with portable darkrooms in wagons. Dry plates made this somewhat easier and then the invention of emulsions coated on film easier still. But while snapshots could be done on a Brownie once it was introduced at the turn of the last century, professional still needed to use cameras that were fairly large and cumbersome.
By the time Blow Up was released photographers were able to work with 35MM and medium format cameras and there were professional labs to develop and print BW and a variety of color negative and transparency films. So the level of effort and craft required to become a serious photography was much more accessible. Photographers sill needed to understand things like film sensitivity, the difference in film types, the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, and depth of field but they didn’t need to be experts in chemistry or have the same degree of technical ability as their predecessors.
Young would-be heroes who watched Maverick rule the skies in Top Gun still had to be accepted for pilot training. But if he watched Blow Up and dreamed of a career humping beautiful models in the studio all he needed was a relatively inexpensive camera and he was off to the races. Look at the careers of famous photographers of the 50s and 60s like Richard Alvedon, David Bailey or Brian Duffy and that describes pretty much how they got started.
Of course, the digital revolution has changed the level of craft for photographers and the steepness of the learning curve.. There are still plenty of knowledgeable, well-schooled photographers who don’t need to rely on automatic controls – although they might do so anyway. But there are thousands of more who set their cameras on auto or program and just shoot away. If exposures or contrast or white balance are off there is always Photoshop and Lightroom to the rescue. There is also the fact that photographers in the beginning can shoot as many images as they want without the cost of film and processing. So a young photographer can keep clicking and clicking away and get a lot more practice than would have been possible in the past. Plus it is possible to shoot a huge number of files and then pick out the successful ones afterwards.
As used to be the saying, give a monkey a motor drive, let him keep shooting and you’re bound so end up with at least some excellent pictures.
In fact, with as many as 200,000 photos being uploaded to Facebook every hour the task of creating images that get photographers noticed and get them work is a real challenge. In fact, some photo consultants advise that photographers should not try to compete on the basis of quality of their work but concentrate more on relationships, connections, networking and any other way of establishing a personal connection. Being good simply doesn’t seem to be good enough.
So watching Blow Up nowadays is a little like seeing a WWII war movie with Spitfires dueling in the skies above Britain with ME-109s. Entertaining but nostalgic, a look at the way things used to be but will never be again. The things is, photography itself hasn’t changed a big. If you love making images and get a deep satisfaction from creating good ones, no matter how much the equipment, the technology or the means of sharing them change the act of visual creation remains the same. Photographers make photos, not cameras or technology.
But the profession of photography has already changed beyond recognition so that the world of Blow Up has pretty much Blown Away. And it is very difficult to know what the future has in store for picture making and picture makers..
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY
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