Classic Reviews, Reviews — February 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm



“I’m only doing my job. Some people are bullfighters, some people are politicians. I’m a photographer.”


During the opening sequence of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, we see a little hint of Austin’s photography-career. Again, during Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, we see Austin-the-photographer shoot Kristen Johnston and Rebecca Romijn Stamos – “You’re a ti-iger!”. I knew all of this was referencing the sixties and paying homage to a classic staple of 60′s cinema. It wasn’t long before I realised the frame-of-reference: Blow-Up. On the one hand, this film is incredibly fashionable and a great world to get lost within, but on the other hand it raises profound questions about art, appreciation and our role as an audience-member. Blow-Up is, first and foremost, a work of art moreso that mere entertainment – but this is not to say that it is inaccessible, indeed, it is incredibly engaging and will keep you hooke duntil the end-credits roll.

The Photographer Captures Reality

Blow-Up shows us David Hemmings portraying Thomas, a photography based on swinging-sixties photographer David Bailey. He captures art-photo’s portraying the hard-working conditions in a doss-house whilst also phtographing the rich-and-famous. Early on, he takes a little walk around London and photographs a couple – whereby the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) demands the film. He refuses but, upon closer inspection, realises that within the pictures he has taken is the body of the man she was with. He revisits the park and finds the body but, without a camera, he can do very little. Back at his apartment, everything is stolen except for one grainy, unclear image showing the body. He tries to tell a friend, and when he returns to the park a third time, the body is gone. The film ends as he takes part in an imaginary tennis-match.

‘Manhattan Lower East Side’ by Jacob Riis

I am very aware that such an overview seems redundant as many themes and ideas Antonioni uses are deeply integrated in the film itself. For example, a sequence whereby Thomas visits an Antique shop, though not integral to the who-done-it story, is important in Antonioni’s exploration as to what defines art. The same could be said about the performance artists which bookend the film – it is this group which Thomas joins in for an imaginary game of tennis at the close of the film.

The Definition of Art

This is a big question as it does not qualify what is good or bad art – it merely asks what defines it. The film begins contrasting a group of performance-artists (crazily-dressed, running-amok, asking for money and jumping on cars) with Thomas himself, a quiet unassuming man who covertly worked in a doss-house to take pictures of the working-conditions. Akin to Jacob Riis and his depiction of the slums in New York, Thomas captures reality and truth. This then switches again as he sneaks away from the working-class men he has worked alongside and slips into a Rolls Royce, heading back to his fashionable apartment, to take pictures of celebrity Veruschka (an actual 60′s model playing herself). He shaves and cleans himself up – he is a rich man who is a successful photographer.

An Iconic scene from ‘Blow-Up’

This introduction forces you to acknowledge what type of person is an artist. Performance-artists of the sixties included Yves Klein (literally dragging someone, covered in paint, across the floor would be one art piece titled “The Anthropometries of the Blue Period” in 1958) and therefore the performance-artists at the start of the film clarify that these people define contemporary art before completely changing this perception as the working-man emerges from the doss-house only to go home in a Rolls-Royce and take pictures of celebrity. If success is determined by financial wealth – than clearly this photographer is the true artist. In the way he shoots, he is passionate and personal – the art of photography to him is almost a sexual act as he straddles Verushka whilst she writhes and moans on the floor. It is sexual, personal and real.

I believe the visit to the antique-shop further explores this definition as we see an attitude to the classic arts.  The older-shop assistant is not helpful and clearly despises Thomas’ arrogance and attitude. Is the film arguing how photographers, though the future of art to some extent, is ignored and segregated from the elitist art circles. As an art form, photography is not seen in the same league as classical art forms such as painting and sculpture, yet it is also not seen as part of the contemporary art-scene such as performance-art. Even the young shop-owner confesses that “Money is always a problem” and maybe this is the crux of the issue – photography is accessible and art is elitest through the upper-class dominating the arts. Photography opens it out so that anyone can be an artist – but some areas of society do not want art to be that accessible. Again, “money is always a problem”.

Look Closer

I vividly recall the marketing campaign for American Beauty whereby the tag line was “look closer”. It would be more appropriate for Blow-Up. Art is not something you spend a second before moving onto another image. You need to look carefully and look closer. The film states the case that this is also the case of photography. Abstract-expressionism and painterly-styles often require the close-inspection of an image so that you can see and almost-feel the texture and the surface. In Blow-Up we see how Thomas blows-up an image larger and larger so that it becomes purely abstract and unclear. yet still, there is something within the image. When viewing art, it is this same eye we should use – inquisitive and inspecting the details.

In the same way, with the story itself, it is not clear who the killer is – indeed, it is not clear what exactly is happening. Like Thomas, we are observers and we are desperately trying to piece the story together. In the same way that Thomas is creating a story that fits the images he has created – almost like storyboards – we are equally assuming what has happened. We see hints at relationships Thomas has – his best friends girlfriend and again, we do not know the history, but we are left guessing and thinking about what has happened.

In terms of value, when we see The Yardbirds perform, the audience stand transfixed without emotion until the guitar-played smashes up his guitar and throws it to the audience. Everyone screams and tries to get a piece of the band. Thomas manages to take a section – and is chased out the building with it. Outside though, he throws it away. A passerby picks it up and, understandably confused, throws it away again. The value of art – what is and isn’t important. This section of the guitar, within the hall, was fought over but outside no one cares. Therefore defining art by the value placed on it is clearly arbitrary as it depends on the audience.

Art is Imagination

The anti-climactic nature of the final act could put some viewers off, but I believe it answers the question it initially set-up. What defines art? Is it the principles set by the history of art - the classic art forms? the contemporary art forms? Does it rely on finance and wealth? Not if realism is classified as an artistic context. If it has a value placed upon it? Not really, as we have seen the throw-away nature of guitars and photographs.

The final sequence brings back the performance artists. They are not as threatening – they are still crazy – but instead run to an empty tennis-court and begin a match. Often associated with the upper-class, they play tennis without a ball and without rackets. The two play happily and competitively whilst the other artist look and imagine the ball passing from one side to another. Thomas is transfixed – the body is gone, he has no way to contact Vanessa Redgrave. It is merely a memory. The “ball” is hit out of the court and “lands” close to Thomas. He looks and picks up the tennis ball, throwing it back. He has given in – he imagines what everyone believes is true and consequently takes part in the game as an observer.

Art is about imagination and requires only this to truly experience it. As an observer you can take part by personally choosing to get involved. Blow-Up needs to be experienced to be understood. The story is similar to Enemy of the State as a photographer “catches” something and the rest of the film plays out following this – but unlike Enemy of the State (Indeed, they are completely different in many respects but bear with me…) this photo, after everything, is unimportant. Thomas is not held responsible and is not threatened – indeed, like contemporary art, there is no reason he should even care about it. But if you use your imagination and “look closer” you will see that there is so much more to it …

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Tags Blow-UpBlowupDavid HemmingsMichelangelo AntonioniVanessa Redgrave


  • Loved this review! And yeah, Antonioni does a great job of showing–with the Yardbirds scene–the extent to which the worth of art is determined by the context, by everyone else’s reaction to it. I actually wrote about that scene some time back.

  • Thanks Dave! I was wondering how many people have seen this film! I had a quick gander at your article on The Yardbirds – looks great. I’ll try and read through it all and comment. Such a strange club – this almost punk-rock music and everyone stands and looks, no cheering, singing along or anything. Just staring … very unsettling almost like THE BIRDS.

  • Blow-Up is great! I watched parts of it in a history of film course and had to go watch it in it’s entirety right away. It’s like equal parts cool, strange, detached, and engaging. I love the way you dissect films Simon! You always give a really fresh and analytical take on movies.

    • Thanks Jess for your kind words – you are completely right: “strange, detached and engaging”. A great way summarise the film.

  • Oddly this is one of my least favorite Antonioni films, mostly due to David Hemmings. When I first saw it, I found his detachment more annoying than unsettling. But after a few more viewings, I began to understand the picture more. It’s such an odd film, masquerading (very ably) as a thriller. But interesting nevertheless.

    • I haven’t seen many Antonioni films – which would you recommend? I think the whole thriller genre element is very-much to give the film a clear narrative to take hold of – because none of it is actually resolved: the body is gone, we don’t know who the killer is and none of it really matters. It is simply a way to play out the themes of the film

      • Don’t get me wrong; I like the film a great deal more now. I like the manipulation of the genre into something more profound, and the ending is an appropriate commentary on Thomas’s approach to his art. You make a good case for it, too.

        Antonioni is one of my favorite ‘art house’ filmmakers. Definitely recommend ‘The Passenger’ with Jack Nicholson. It’s probably his most accessible work after ‘Blow Up’. ‘Red Dust’ is also excellent, but can be boring if you’re not in the right frame of mind (very very little happens in terms of action or plot). And the loose trilogy of alienation (L’Avventura, L’Eclisse and La Notte) are all good, but again can be quite boring if you’re not prepared to sit through long passages of very little happening.

        • I shall try and hunt them down – I would never say I know my Antonioni. But now you have given me a list of films to watch! Thanks!