Photography, Music, and Light Lessons Within Blow-up (1966 Film) By Michelangelo Antonioni

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I saw a man killed this morning.
In some sort of park.
Are you sure?
He’s still there.
Who was he?
How did it happen?
I don’t know, I didn’t see.
You didn’t see.
Shouldn’t you call the police?
That’s the body.
Looks like one of Bill’s paintings.
Will you help me?
I don’t know what to do.
What is it?
I wonder why they shot him.
I didn’t ask.

Blow-Up is one of those films that give us, yet another creative version, of Campbell’s “Path of the Hero“. From the very beginning, we are presented with the ideal type of photographer. Well, not from the beginning, because the movie starts with some wacky characters that appear to be randomly placed in the scene, but I finally decoded the symbol behind those screaming mimes. And today, I want to share some of the interesting lessons and insights for us photography enthusiasts that are present across the film. Oh, and there are some other curious lessons (or jokes) about music that might get you thinking as well!

Yet Another Synopsis from Blow-Up

Right away we are presented with the idea that photographers can be talented in more than a single genre. And that is perhaps the most important lesson from the movie and the one I’ll develop throughout this brief text. I remember thinking that Thomas was suffering some sort of existential crisis the first time I saw this movie almost a decade ago. But now I know better, and the story is less poetic and more pragmatic than it seems. Thomas is capable of dwelling between two worlds and with his photographic mind and gaze, he is capable of getting close to the things that interest him the most.

After spending the night at a dosshouse, (where we later know that he was taking images for an upcoming photo book featuring other creatives) we see Thomas running late for a photoshoot with Verushka (she plays herself in the film) which also makes him late to another, less-important, shoot with some dull models. Such an attitude in the girls makes him so sick that he walks off. Some other random events take place, and we finally arrive at the scene that connects with the short story this movie was adapted from, “Las Babas del Diablo” (which could easily translate to the Devil’s Drools rather than Blow-Up) from Julio Cortázar.

Wandering into Maryon Park, Thomas takes some photographs of two lovers in a pretty similar way like in Cortázar’s story. Actually, just like in the original tale, the man appears to be pretty young at first, almost like a child, and then he “stiffens” up as Thomas gets closer. Such an ingenious film trick deserves some sort of rhetorical award or merit at least.

The woman, which we later know as Jane, gets anxiously mad for being photographed by a stranger. She reaches Thomas and angrily demands the film. He refuses and even takes more photographs of her. The film then develops its natural sixties course, and then Thomas starts relating with the photos in a very curious way.

He makes multiple blow-ups of the frames, and when he stumbles into something odd, a third-person lurking in the trees with a pistol in hand. Thomas calls a friend and tells him that he thinks he saved someone’s life. But as we know, that wasn’t exactly true because he goes back to the park and sees a dead body lying there in the grass. Thomas then returns to his studio just to find out that his place was raided and all the negatives and prints were gone, all except for one very grainy blow-up of what presumably is the man’s dead body.

So, despite the intense creative freedom Antonioni took, the literal essence of Blow-Up remains. The genius of his adaptation is that the story’s kernel remains while taking it to another context in which Thomas (unlike Robert) is indeed a photographer, but experiences some odd feelings just like the ones expressed by Robert in Cortázar’s story. Subtle parallelism leads us into two different stories that converge in abandonment and disorientation.

Let’s Swing for a Bit

Let’s start with the fine aesthetic statements presented by music director, Herbie Hancock. From the very beginning, we are presented with a musical duality between Rock and Roll and Jazz. The intro starts with some groovy rock music, and right when Hancock’s name appears, it switches to something that reminds us of Bebop and Hard-bop; therefore, not your average Starbucks’ jazzy ambient sounds. This is a powerful message announcing a clear position regarding music as a whole.

Herbie Hancock is nowadays considered as one of the primary architects of the post-bop sound, a genre that features the conventions of the apparently formless freedom of the new jazz. Another curious finding of music is the following: when Jane arrives at Thomas’, he offers something to smoke and asks her to chill while putting on some music which happens to be some Rock and Roll tunes. Right after that, we see her trying to dance a little but she does in a forced and clumsy way, in an absolutely rhythmless way. Here, Hancock tries to tell us that R&R isn’t capable of making people dance as Jazz does. And if you think that this is an overly-cooked idea, then consider that Cortázar was a huge Jazz melomaniac.

Last but not least, “The Yardbirds” concert. For any Rock music lover (myself very much included) having Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page jamming together is an exquisite experience. But let’s remember that, even when these great musicians were participating in the film as themselves, Hancock was still in charge of directing the music accompanying the film. So here, in an act of elegant dark humor, he takes a final swing. Dull people as mannequins, dully observing two of the greatest guitarists ever playing together, is something to think about.

Also interesting, as the amplifiers start failing, Beck gets angry and mad and crashes his guitar. And only when he does the cliched thing of throwing something to the crowd (in this case his guitar’s neck) do the people finally start reacting as a crowd in a concert. Hancock finishes this statement about Jazz vs. Rock and Roll by illustrating us with the following lesson, Rock relies on electronic adjuncts, and Jazz is all about the unplugged-richness of acoustic music. Not to mention the classic drama among Brits and Americans.

On Profiling Thomas

He quickly gives us a lesson about how photographers should get closer to phenomena triggering their minds. He dwells between top-fashion and social documentary, he gets close to the people and manages to capture some powerful and intimate photographs of both models and the working class proletariats. He never walks without a camera and knows the value of them too.

I reckon watching this movie for the first time around 2013, and at that moment in time, I felt that when Thomas left his camera inside the car, this was going to be stolen in the next scene. To my surprise, that didn’t happen as I thought. Now while revisiting this masterpiece, I recognised that Thomas was very well aware of the value of his camera, and he placed it on the glove compartment and locked it up. To the average English folk of the sixties, that was a more than sufficient precaution.

As in the title of Cortázar’s short story, the Devil is present for sure. The Devil is Thomas, and we are presented to his ways of living among us. More than a sinister character, Thomas is presented as this frolicsome, playful, and mischievous character that has little to no interest in ruling the world despite having the power of doing it through the means of mass culture and cultural industries. In a nutshell, he symbolises the underlying mechanism of the visual engine setting the banalest aspects of the markets around us. He is the almighty individual behind the self-image motifs which set the accelerating motion of our consumer economy. He is the devil, and he knows it.

Interestingly enough, he gets pretty frustrated and angry when he works in an empty concept with numbed models which give him no thrills at all. Yet, he knows he has the power of stating that whatever product goes in front of this banal concept, it will sell. As a photographer, he has the power of transmuting something to the audience like no one else in the world. Such frustrations pushed him into wandering the streets, and that’s where the actual plot thickens.

He also reacts distinguishably violently with the two girls that stalk him for photos. He could have forgiven the models for being dull and numb, after all, they were just performing in accordance with a concept some creative snob had designed for Thomas to represent. But with these two, he appears merciless for some reason. And the main cause is that they are not performing, they are not acting. They are part of the system he has helped create, and feels disgusted by them. He even tells one of the girls to get rid of her purse due to being “diabolical”. He knows better than we do, and that drives him a bit mad too.

Blowing “Blow-Up” Up

No decent review of Blow-Up wouldn’t be complete if the murdering drama wasn’t mentioned at all, right? Thanks to the multiple blow-ups and the forced “light information” retrievals from the shadows, Thomas manages to reveal the murder hiding in the bushes.

When Patricia appears, he tells her that “someone killed someone”, and she asks “who”, and he says “I didn’t see”. And that’s a nice metaphor for how photographers sometimes stop seeing with their own eyes because they are looking through the lens. Because they are set to represent the human gaze, photographers stop seeing with their own eyes. And that price becomes way more noticeable when considering the merciless cruelty of SLR and DSLR cameras which obstruct our gaze when pressing down the shutter button every time.

Thomas manages to interpret the photograph and realizes that there is something out of frame that deserves more proximity. He inspects several frames and multiple blow-ups in the search of something, something that got Jane’s attention in the first place. More than a direct shot of the crime, he captured the place where Jane was watching, and that is why he was able to find the crime, hidden in the shadows of the frame.

In simple words regarding the photographic discipline, the entire film can be read as the importance of always having a camera by our side. Even when Thomas goes to the park later that night, he forgets to carry a camera with him and the whole evidence was later swept away. Blow-Up is an aesthetic metaphor for the terrible lesson that circumstances teach us and with which we learn to always walk with the camera no matter what.

Painting and Photography

One of the most fascinating dialogues that happen in this film is the one taken between painting and photography. Portrayed by Bill, painting is presented to us as a bohemian character whose photography took everything from its life. As portrayed by Thomas, photography is presented to us in a pedantic way. In this scene, Bill tells Thomas about the age of one of his paintings, which could be understood as a close relationship with every painting he has ever made. Something which in contrast, happens just on rare occasions in photography. Despite the technical effort, his paintings tell him nothing at first. He needs to drive some tremendous effort to pull out some meaning from them, and that’s the beauty of this dialogue that cooks within the film.

Painting claims photography for pushing it towards this. Painting knows photography took its purpose away. Photography into this world excelled at capturing the observable, something both sculpture and painting no longer needed to dedicate themselves to. If suddenly a more efficient way of doing something appears, then it will replace the previous way. That’s how paradigms change, and drawing, painting, and sculpture weren’t mandatorily needed for registering the stuff that happened in front of our eyes. When it comes to capturing the observable, we cannot deny that photography gains at being less time-consuming and way easier to learn than other forms of human expression.

Thanks to photography, these branches of expressive creation were forced to look for other purposes in life. Hence the tilt towards the unobservable aspects of life, the mental fields of humanity which mostly resulted in several variations of abstract nature. The funny thing is that in the end, all of these abstractions are attempting to represent the observable in different (and sometimes forced) ways.

Bill (Painting) tells Thomas (Photography) that sometimes he feels like a detective looking for a clue, and maybe that’s the main reason why Thomas forces himself to search in the frames for something else to be seen. Luckily for him, he does capture something meaningful and relevant with his first private eye rehearse. And last but not least, Bill denies giving or selling a painting to Thomas. That’s the way Painting tells Photography that it can’t have it all.


And last but not least, the theme with light.

It is impossible not to see the falsehood produced by artificial light, especially when Thomas goes back to the park in the middle of the night. Here appears to be one of the many examples of why Kubrick hated so much working with such sources of light. It is true, he used artificial light but in a practical way, which enhanced the truthfulness of the story he was trying to tell. Something impossible to feel when you have an automaton beam of light following characters in the search for glamour and beauty.

Personally, I find that the annoying yelling mimes resource is a playful allegory of light. Light is a visible physical phenomenon that shares its wave or frequency behavior with sound. Light screams, light is incomprehensible; yet, it traps and intrigues us. All the mimes portray light, they all have accents of color, but are trapped or embedded within black and white. They taunt Thomas and prove to us why they are chaotic personifications of light. The erratic aspect of light we still cannot fully understand. Light becomes irrational, just because we still don’t know very well how light exists.

Some other interesting symbols that caught my attention were the way Thomas rolled the coin through his fingers like saying “I’m quite responsible for some money’s flow”, and the propeller he bought which could be easily understood as his longing for absolute freedom from this world he helped create with his eyes.