Blow Up and Swinging London

In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene. This spring, as never before in modern times, London is switched on. Ancient elegance and new opulence are all tangled up in a dazzling blur of op and pop. The city is alive with birds (girls) and beatles, buzzing with minicars and telly stars, pulsing with half a dozen separate veins of excitement.
 Halasz (1966, p.1)

When Michelangelo Antonioni decided to set his first English-speaking film Blow-Up in London, the choice could not have been more appropriate. For a whole decade, the city was taken as the ‘swinging’ capital of the world, breaking with the traditions and establishing new customs and moralities. According to the Italian director, London had the singular ability to offer ‘the best and the worst in the world’ (Halasz, 1966, p.1).

Indeed, its unique population – a young, talented and classless group of fashion designers, pop singers, photographers, and models – became responsible for dictating the new tastes in music and fashion. Their flamboyant lifestyle soon captured the attention of the media, and by the second half of the decade, the mod culture was inspiring journalists and directors.

In Antonioni’s case, their frenetic universe provided him with a rich material to create one the finest and most interesting cinematic depictions of the 1960s young generation. As fast as a snap shot, the film became a mark in the history of cinema. Not only did it translate into images the zeitgeist of a decade, but it also became a milestone in liberalized attitudes towards film nudity and expressions of sexuality.

But how exactly did ‘Swinging London’ inspire Blow-Up? How does it portray youth? Why is the fashion photographer the main character and what is his relation to the contemporary scene? And finally, what is the film‘s relevance today?

Through this essay, I intend to analyse the significance of Antonioni’s film, as well as the role of the fashion photographer and model, in the construction of the 1960’s imagery. By discussing specific scenes of the film, it is aimed to understand how youth and image (particularly fashion photography) contributed to the idea that London was the centre of creative energy.


Blow-Up, released in the UK in January 1967, is the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-speaking and second colour film. Set in ‘Swinging’ London, it shows the life, or more accurately, a brief moment in the life of a mod fashion photographer, played by David Hemmings. During the period of one day, we watch him experience the mod lifestyle through a series of interesting encounters and events, that includes photo shoot sessions, a ‘pot party,’ a concert in a rock’n roll nightclub and even a possible murder mystery.

I believe it is important to point out that the film is inspired by the Argentinean Julio Cortázar’s short story ‘Las Babas del Diablo’ (‘The Devil’s Drool’). In it, an amateur photographer believes his camera had witnessed an attempt of murder. The fact that there is something on the pictures, which he has not arranged, surprises him, and he therefore struggles to understand what his camera has precisely captured. His discoveries and possible realisations become highly questionable in terms of reality and truth. In this sense, the author questions the point at which the artist remains in control of his work/reality, and what happens when the creation starts to have a life of its own.

Antonioni appropriates the same concerns in relation to the existential nature of reality to his film. He once declared that he wanted to re-create reality ‘in an abstract form,’ putting the subject itself in question. ‘This is an essential point with which the visual aspect of this film is concerned, given the fact one of its principal themes is to see rightly, or else not to see the true value of things’ (quoted from Huss, 1971, p.8).

In fact, there is as much evidence to prove as to disprove the reality of almost anything that occurs in the film. We are placed in a dark room, where a logical and convincing solution will not be achieved by simply following the clues. For instance, we could never actually know if the protagonist has made love to Vanessa Redgrave’s character, or to the teenage girls. And we will definitely not know the answer for the murder, if in fact there ever had been a murder, as some critics suggest.

Moreover, in the last scene of the film, the protagonist returns a not-existent tennis ball to the group of mimes in a court. Although we do not see it, we can hear the sound of the ball on the racquets. Is then the ball real? And finally, the protagonist himself disappears before our eyes, leaving us with the same green grass from the opening sequence, and hence a question: did the whole film actually happen?

The director also deals with the theme of an artist exploring the possibility of his medium. Roy Huss and John Freccero share a similar argument, in which they state that Blow-Up is, in many ways, a ‘series of photographs about a series of photographs,’ and so constitutes what one might call a filmmaker’s film (Huss, 1971, p.5 and p.118 respectively). In the same manner that Antonioni can create the photographer’s character and manipulate him, so too can the photographer arrange and manipulate his models in the movie. It is also interesting to note that this subject is equally presented in other motion pictures, such as Persona, by Bergman, and 81/2, by Fellini.

But, in spite of these similarities, Antonioni consciously discarded most of the short story’s plot to focus mainly in the technical aspects of photography. Indeed, by transforming Cortázar’s amateur photographer into a professional one, his protagonist becomes an aesthetic creature, who needs to possess the world around him through images he helps to create. He does not use words as communication tools, and most of his dialogues are in fact short and sharp.

The most memorable scenes, and even the climax, are based on the act of photographing or developing pictures. For instance, his first photo shoot, with the single model, became a mark in the history of cinema and even now is vividly remembered by the youth of the sixties. Another example is the blowing up sequence, in which is climax is built exclusively on his act of developing the film and arranging the pictures on the wall. Even though there is no dialogues or music in the background, the scene is captivating and we cannot take our eyes off of the screen.

The photographer

 Loosely modelled on the life of the fashion photographer David Bailey, Hemmings’ character is cocky, autocratic, capricious and compulsive. He retains a sort of detachment to everything around him, being, in fact, only able to involve himself in pleasure or his work. According to Charles Thomas Samuels, in his essay entitled ‘The Blow-Up: Sorting Things Out,’ the photographer can be considered a typical Antonioni male character, since he has no sense of life’s purpose (Huss, 1971, p.18).

Arguably, his devotion to pleasure is not entirely ascribed to the fact that he follows the director’s usual features. He is also part of the sixties’ young generation, which remarkably engaged their newly disposable incomes in the process of conspicuous consumption, particularly in the indulgence of leisure and personal enlightenment (Breward, 2003, p. 150).

The photographer presents a mockery attitude towards fashion photography, and his absolute authority inside his studio is filled with contempt and derision. But it is important to highlight that the same irreverent posture was indeed carried by the so-called ‘Terrible Three’ as well. The group, formed by three working-class London photographers – David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy – is responsible for best typifying the image of the 1960s photographer Hemmings portrays.

They disregarded the pretensions of high fashion, and had low opinions to all its protagonists, even the models, with whom they would usually get romantically involved outside the studio. Bailey, for instance, was renowned for his ruthless and sexist attitude towards his subjects, and Lisa Taylor, a model of the period, once confirmed that models were indeed mistreated by everyone – ‘fashion editors and photographers and even hairdressers’ (quoted from Craik, 2003, p.82).

In Blow-Up, good examples of this sort of behaviour are spotted in scenes such as the one with the teenage girls, or the photo shoot with the group of models. In the former one, Hemmings’ character plays it ‘cool,’ and after ‘playing’ with the naïve girls, he just gets rid of them, instead of taking their pictures as they wanted. In the latter, he acts in a similar way, being rude and impatient. After a few unsuccessful shots, he abandons the session, leaving the models, who have their eyes shut, unaware of his decision.

Pamela Church Gibson points out that even though he scorns the industry that has made him successful and rich, his adventures outside the fashion world ‘leave him even more disillusioned and frustrated’ (Breward, Gilbert, Lister, 2006, p. 95). Nevertheless, one might argue that it is not necessarily leaving fashion, as much as leaving his profession that makes him feel lost.

He needs to be functioning as a photographer to maintain his identity and the presence or absence of his camera controls his personality. Camera in hand, he is stylish and sturdy, being able to experience the world and command everything around him. Thus, it is not wrong to suggest that the camera is then a metaphor of his life. His eyes works like a lens, and his life-rhythm, as disjunctive and episodic as it is, follows the rhythm of a picture taking. It is significant to note that the only sexual encounter, which he follows through to its climax, is the one he vicariously shares with the first model, while photographing her (Grossvogel, 1972, p. 51-2).

In that sequence, Hemmings’ character dominates and ravishes a single model, played by Verushka. She is fluid, spontaneous, and erotic, and while he takes her pictures, she writhes like an animal between his legs. The pace starts slowly, but gradually intensifies, until it reaches the climax with the photographer sitting astride his subject (picture 1). The modern jazz music that pounds out in the background only reinforces the unrelenting and ever-increasing rhythm of the scene.

What’s more, I would like to highlight that the sexuality achieved by Antonioni was intentional and aimed for authenticity. The explicit sexual tension between the photographer and the model – and the overtly sexualised body – were important elements of the 1960s ’New Wave’ photography. For instance, the rapid-fire shooting, which characterized the photographer’s style in the film, was derived from David Bailey’s (and the Terrible Three) method of shooting.

According to an interview with Francis Wyndham for a Sunday Times Magazine feature in 1964, taking fashion photographs was, for Bailey and Duffy, ‘…a most definitely sexual thing. The only thing between you and the girl is the camera. A three-legged phallus’ (quoted from Hall-Duncan, 1979, p.161). Donovan, in addition, stated that, to achieve a good picture, ‘a chemical thing between you and the girl’ was needed (quoted from Craik, 2003, p.107).

Jean Shrimpton, who worked with most of the noted photographers of the period, also recalls in her autobiography the ‘strong sexual atmosphere’ during photographic sessions. ‘Photographers do have a lure for models, and a photographic session can be a very seductive time. Locked together in a studio, a sexual buzz gets going which normally ends when the session ends’ (quoted from Craik, 2003, p.107).

Interestingly, the sexual overtones from the 1960s photographs correspond to the features of ‘New Wave’ films. Thus it is not surprising that Bailey acknowledged being inspired by films like Jules et Jim, by the French director François Truffaut. Actually, the cinematic movement had a great influence on the decade’s fashion photography, and many of the experiments and techniques developed by these European filmmakers were translated into the glossy pages of fashion magazines.

For example, the sense of fluidity and movement in fashion photographs can be traced in the restless pace of Jean-Luc Godard’s films. Even the adoption of 35 mm single-lens reflex cameras by fashion photographers coincides with the informal, unrefined hand-held camerawork of the same director’s picture A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (Harrison, 1991, p.211).

Concerning the importance of Hemmings’ role as a photographer, another point can be observed in the fact that the character’s name is never mentioned in the picture (although he is known as Thomas by many writers and critics). In this sense, it is not wrong to state that he is better defined by his function, than by what he is called.

This exalted professional status is particularly noticeable in the scene with the two teenage girls. They look for him to fulfil their model aspirations, and therefore, submit themselves to his unpredictable wishes in order to have a few pictures taken. Their attempts, which eventually fail, culminate in the first on-screen exposure of pubic hair in film history.

Still in relation to this sequence, one might also suggest that modelling too was taken as a prestigious profession. During this period, models developed an independent identity, emerging as a significant key in fashion discourse, and helping to break the conventional standards of photography and haute couture. Shrimpton, for example, epitomised the image of the new model, becoming a fashion leader in her own right. Together with Bailey, she personified the myth of ‘Swinging’ London.

The photographer’s character soon saw his popularity established, having not only the two coquettes, but also a whole generation falling under his spell. His portrayal reached the hearts and minds of a broad audience, and so helped to define the public’s image of the 1960s fashion photographer as the ‘photographer-hero’ (Harrison 1991, p.187).

He is young, attractive and successful: drives a convertible Rolls Royce, can seduce the most beautiful models in London (and also the aspiring ones), and has the option to abuse sex and drugs anytime. In a sense, he is the highest representation of the mod lifestyle’s essence.

George Slover defends the same argument, describing how the material possessions of the photographer perfectly correspond to the ideals of the subculture. Firstly, he points out the importance of technology as a valuable commodity. If we consider the photographic studio and laboratory in the film, it is highly sophisticated, and filled with shiny and modern equipment (Huss 1971, p. 111).

Then, there is the crucial role of the automobile. Antonioni gives his protagonist’s car considerable attention, showing it more than once in prolonged sequences. Besides the fact it represents an expensive and trendy machine, it is also equipped with technological tools, such as the two-way radio.

Interestingly, as a result of the protagonist’s general acceptance, many ‘would-be wonder clickers,’ who could operate a fashion camera, ‘were drawn to the newfound glamour of the photographic profession.’ As a matter of fact, many fashion photographers themselves felt compelled to live up to the protagonist’s image. They set up lavish studios and were forced to charge stratospheric fees to sustain their expensive lifestyles (Hall-Duncan 1979, p.161-2).

Swinging London

When Antonioni started thinking about the setting in Blow-Up, Italy was his first choice. He was used to shooting in his motherland, and the language would not represent an issue. Nevertheless, the Italian culture proved not to match the film’s essence, and so, it did not take long for the director to realise that the British capital would be a better option for a film like this.

‘In the first place, a person like Thomas does not really exist in Italy,’ he explained. ‘However, in England, those newspaper with heavy print that you find there, use photographs like those I have captured in my film. Thomas is also about to become entangled in events, which are easier to relate to London than to life in Rome or Milan. He has opted for the revolution, which affects life, customs, and morality here in England, at least among the young artists, designers, advertising men, models or musicians who are inspired by the ‘pop’ movement’ (quoted from Huss 1971, p.10).

By the time the film was released, the city was living the climax of its fame. For a decade, it had been playing a significant role in contemporary social and cultural changes. Traditional aspects of morality and costumes were shaken to their cores, opening, thereby, the doors for a revolution in consumption and sexual behaviours. Soon, the new established British culture was more than simply filled by youth – it was dominated by it.

As one could suggest, fashion industry was the most affected by the ‘youthquake.’ Haute couture, which until this point had seen its empire untouched, faced a powerful strike from the advents of a more innovative and democratized ready-to-wear production. Pre-war strictures in elegance and restraint in dress were overturned by a wave of gaudy ‘pop’ colours, striking op-art mini-dresses and childlike poses.

The term ‘Swinging’ London came from a special edition of the American weekly magazine Times, published on 15 April 1966. In a celebratory tone, it tried to express everything that was distinctive about the city and its population, from popular culture, to dress and shopping addresses. Arguably, the most interesting and even successful part of the edition was its cover, illustrated by Geoffrey Dickinson (picture 2).

According to Christopher Breward, the cover design captured ‘what would become the clichéd signifiers of an era.’ For example, there was the Union Jack at the background; Big Ben and a bingo hall (indicating the contrast between unique and ordinary in architecture); the neon of a cinema sign advertising the contemporary film Alfie; a selection of vehicles, from a red bus to a Rolls Royce and Mini Cooper; a photographer in front of a discotheque; a pop singer wearing a ‘The Who’ t-shirt and Union Jack sunglasses; and in the middle some fashionable young people (Breward, Gilbert, Lister, 2006, p.8).

Interestingly, films that portray the city and its cultural phenomenon – the so-called ‘Swinging London films’ – do not share the same cheerful approach. On the contrary, they are dark, problematic, and usually carry a disapproval tone towards the structures and morality of the young British culture. Moreover, as Church Gibson points out, those pictures were particularly severe on independent young women, who engaged in ‘the pleasures of fashionable consumption’ (Church Gibson, quoted from Breward, Gilbert, 2006, p.103).

In response to all the changes taking place in the period, women saw the opportunity to adopt new liberalizing attitudes regarding their social position. A traditional patriarchal system, based on marriage and domesticity, were no longer part of their futures. Instead, they contemplated the idea of a glamorous life, in which they were economically independent and adored by men.

In this sense, maternity is replaced by consumerism in the construction of femininity, and the role of fashion and appearance was now to reflect their new aspirations. A curvaceous body, that previously typified the feminine model, is then substituted by a child-like and androgynous figure. Thinness and immaturity can be considered signs of weakness, asexuality and hunger, and therefore, represent an attempt to break out of the conventions (Craik, 2003, p.84).

In the New British Cinema, the heroine follows the new aesthetic, and one could say they look like any young girl sitting in the audience. This fact can be noticed quite vividly in Blow-Up, in which the female characters (except for the group of models in the photo shoot) wear casual clothes and display untidy hairs.

Vanessa Redgrave’s character, for instance, wears a knee-length skirt worn from the hips, a checked shirt, a scarf and flat shoes. Her make-up is very subtle and her hair naturally messy. The teenage girls, in the other hand, present a more exalted young-looking appearance, wearing colourful A-line mini-dresses with green and pink tights. Their flat shoes are equally colourful, and both girls display similar hairstyles – loose with fringes.

The coquettes’ garments were, indeed, very much in accordance to London fashion. The same youth-driven looks, pictured by these films, were also sold in the new boutiques; worn by the ‘dolly girls’ in the streets; and featured in the pages of new teenage magazines, and even Vogue. (Church Gibson, quoted from Breward, Gilbert, 2006, p.104)

In fact, the fashion editors and photographers of the period preferred to use new models, whose faces could easily translate their appetite for novelty and exoticism. Soon, the mature models of the 1950s were replaced by much younger women with child-like attractiveness. Shrimpton, who best projected the image of youth, was often pictured untidy, wearing her hair in braids and carrying toys (picture 3).

In Blow-Up, Antonioni depicted this emphasis on youth by making the majority of his characters part of the young generation. The only two non-youths of prominence in the film are an old clerk in an antique shop and Vanessa Redgrave’s middle-aged lover. Neither manifest feelings of charisma or sympathy, the former being rude and ill tempered, and the latter eventually getting murdered.

Another important aspect of ‘Swinging London films’ is their representation of the city’s urban geography. Very little is seen from the expected and commonly assumed key consumption sites, like Carnaby Street, Chelsea or the West End (as featured in the Times’ 1966 map). Instead, they prefer to show a much more diverse and lesser-known landscape, which result in a London often dreary and hostile. (Church Gibson, in Breward, Gilbert, 2006, p.103)

A similar effect can be traced in the framework of the ‘Terrible Three,’ who favoured a gritty and realistic background for the promotion of stylish clothing, rather than the previous luxurious settings or the contemporary fashionable locations. One could suggest that their working-class East London origins might have been strongly influential in choosing their inspiration sources.

Blow-Up is no exception as the portrayal of the city is just as grim and drag. When we first encounter Hemmings’ character, he is coming out of a doss house, caught up in the crowd of tramps. The pale cloudy sky, the dark brown bricks of the buildings, and the men’s grey suits also help to achieve the gloomy mood of the shot. Actually, for the majority of his exteriors sequences, Antonioni consciously rejected the use of colour, so that he could ‘work out a scale of realistic tones’ (Huss, 1971, p.10).

Indeed, the film is composed by mainly fours hues, black and white being the most prominent. The other two are green and purple, and usually appear in order to punctuate a significant detail or aspect. For example, in the studio, which is starkly black, white and grey, the dark room’s door is green, while the door to the room where the photographer blows up the pictures from the park, is purple. Purple is also the colour of the paper on which he ‘plays’ with the two teenage girls.

The contrast between black and white and colour is equally noticeable in the two photographic sessions. The first shoot occurs over a black background, with Verushka wearing a black dress. Then, we meet the bevy of models, in an op-art setting made of smoked glass screens. The scene starts with them posing in colourless clothes, but soon they change to colourful outfits (pictures 4 and 5). Not surprisingly, one model displays a green dress, whereas another, a purple one.

Arguably, the presence or absence of colour also reflects the protagonist’s feelings. When he is comfortable or in control of the situation, the mise-en-scéne is almost achromatic. However, when he is unsatisfied, lost or unaware of the following events, the sequence becomes rich in hues.

In this sense, one could suggest this conscious use of colour represents Antonioni’s critical analyses of the reality of ‘Swinging’ London. Since the phenomenon is normally portrayed with a profusion of colour (like the Times’s cover previously discussed), it is valid to assume that its negative connotation in the film reflects the director’s view that ‘Swinging’ London just as lost and aimless as his main character.


When Blow-Up was released, in 1967, London had been the epicentre of a significant cultural revolution. For a whole decade, the city witnessed its traditional customs and morality being replaced by new beliefs, lead by the young generation. Suddenly, the British capital represented the ‘scene,’ and for a short period, its ‘new aristocracy’ – a group of photographers, models, designers and pop singers – was responsible for dictating the new styles in fashion and music.

In respond to the contemporary events, Antonioni created one of the most interesting depictions of the period, managing to cover the important aspects of the ‘youthquake.’ Sensitive to the changes that were taking place, he investigates the fundamental structures of the phenomenon, questioning its reality and examining its protagonists.

By making his main character a young fashion photographer, the director analyses not only the role of the profession, but also the methods and behaviours of its most prominent examples. Furthermore, his scenes with the photo shoot sessions or the developing pictures also create an opportunity for him to discuss themes, such as sexuality and the artist exploring its media.

Finally, the film’s aesthetics and bold scenes are still relevant today, serving as a fruitful source of inspiration. For instance, in 1995, the photographer Ellen von Unwerth recreated Verushka’s sequence in an editorial for Vogue magazine (picture 6). Not surprisingly, this scene is constantly reviewed and paraphrased, and its undeniable impact assured it to list the most memorable moments in the history of cinema.

 Isabella Coraça 




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