The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.
Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter.
Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)
Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing. The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park. Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.
I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.