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"Blow-Up: Antonioni's film classic and photography" opens at the Albertina in Vienna
Veruschka von Lehndorff mit David Hemmings in "Blow Up" (Regie: Michelangelo Antonioni), 1966. Ffilm still. Photo: Arthur Evans, Privatsammlung Wien, Courtesy: Neue Visionen Filmverleih GmbH.

VIENNA.- The cult film ‘Blow-Up’ by Michelangelo Antonioni (1966) occupies a central position in the history of film as well as that of art and photography. No other film has shown and sounded out the diverse areas of photography in such a differentiated way. Shot in London, this film, which tells the story of a fashion photographer who happens to photograph a murder in a park, has become a classic. Its relevance and the unabated fascination it evokes are partially due to the remarkable range of themes it deals with. While Antonioni’s description of the social and artistic environment of his protagonist in 1960’s London can be understood as a visual document of the Swinging Sixties, the eponymous photographic blow-ups meticulously examined by the photographer to find something out about an alleged crime prompted a theoretical discourse on the representation and ambiguity of pictures from the first showing of the film. Both themes, the historical outline as well as the media reflexions, concern the main focus of the film: photography.

For the first time the exhibition in the Albertina presents in several chapters the diverse and differentiated connections between film and photography, thus allowing a trenchant profile of the photographic trends of the 1960s.

The photographic range of ’Blow-Up’ is highly diversified and ranges from fashion photography and social reportage to abstract photography. Film stills are shown next to works that can actually be seen in ‘Blow-Up’, as well as pictures that illuminate the cultural and artistic frame of the film production, London in the Swinging Sixties.

The meaning of photography for the film ‘Blow-Up’ is most apparent when Antonioni uses it to characterise his main character Thomas. Played by David Hemmings, the protagonist is not only a fashion photographer, but is also working on an illustrated book with photographs of social reportage. In order to depict both the main figure and its two areas of work in an authentic way, Antonioni is guided by real photographers of the time; before starting to shoot the film he meticulously researched the work as well as environment of the British fashion (photography) scene.

In the course of his preparations Antonioni sent out questionnaires to fashion photographers and visited them in their studios. Thus the main character is modelled after various photographers like David Bailey, John Cowan and Don McCullin; some of them Antonioni asked to cooperate on his film. He also integrated their works, for example Don McCullin’s reportage photographs that the protagonist browses through in the film, or fashion photographs by John Cowan that in the film can be seen in the protagonist’s studio.

In addition Don McCullin created the iconographic photographs that in the film are blown up by Thomas to discover something about the alleged crime. However, the blow-ups only offer ambivalent proof as they become more and more blurred and abstract by the continuous enlarging. Even photography that supposedly represents reality like no other form of media cannot help in shedding any light on the mysterious events in the park. Pictorial reality – thus Antonioni’s conclusion – is only ever constructed by the medium itself.

Antonioni used the photographs seen in the film for media-theoretical reflections and thus set stills and moving pictures in a differentiated context. This complex connection between film and photography is made very clear by the film stills that were created for ‘Blow-Up‘. These still photographs are based on an elaborate process whereby the photographer has certain scenes re-enacted for the photo camera thus transforming the film from moving images into something static. The manifold references of ‘Blow-Up’ are once more condensed into photographs in the film stills, as the pictures reflect the real context of fashion photography in 1960’s London through the depiction of the photographer, of well-known fashion models and the use of clothes to match.

The photographic references in ‘Blow-Up‘ are also set in relation to other art forms. This contextualisation is essential for Antonioni’s understanding of photography. Antonioni was, unlike most other film directors, committed to the applied arts which he showed already in 1964 with his film ‘Deserto Rosso’, its abstract compositions based on Mark Rothko’s paintings. In ‘Blow-Up’ an artistic reference of this nature becomes apparent in the character of the protagonist’s neighbour, an abstract painter named Bill, who is modelled on British artist Ian Stephenson. Also the oil paintings in the film were created by Ian Stephenson. They show abstract motifs that in the film are compared with the stylistically related ‘blow-ups’.

Michelangelo Antonioni filmed ‘Blow-Up‘ at the height of the Swinging Sixties, the social and artistic trends of which are rendered in the film. The agitation of youth culture so characteristic of this time – and not least of all initiated by the Beatles – is shown as well as its trendsetting figures. Thus a concert by the British band ‘The Yardbirds’, with Jimmy Page, the subsequent founder of ‘Led Zeppelin’, served as a filming location. The scene of the infamous Pot-Party in the film was shot in the apartment of the art and antique dealer Christopher Gibbs, who shaped the fashion look of the Swinging Sixties.

British art of the 1960s was also essential for Antonioni as it anticipated many of those abstract tendencies that set the tone for ‘Blow-Up‘. There was, for instance, the pop art artist Richard Hamilton who created blow-ups from ordinary postcards, thus reducing motifs to dots. Or Nigel Henderson, a member of the Independent Group, who had already produced photos in the 1950s, in which he pointed out their material qualities by creasing them and using special procedures for the negatives.

As much as Antonioni’s work is rooted in the 1960s, it is nevertheless a timeless classic that is still relevant for today’s art. This becomes apparent in the exhibition by means of selectively chosen contemporary works that refer to ‘Blow-Up’. Particularly the filmic outline on the representation of images and their ambiguity serves as the artistic basis for the creations of various contemporary photographers. ‘Blow-Up’ has lost none of its relevance for art since its creation in 1966.

Antonioni’s film classic will be shown on Thursday, May 15 and on Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 8 pm in the Gartenbau Cinema as part of a cooperation.

Following the presentation in Vienna the exhibition will be shown in the Fotomuseum Winterthur and the C/O Berlin.

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