BLOW-UP: The Camera Always Lies

Reality happens in between the frames of Antonioni’s existential classic.

Disclosure: Tim League co-owns NEON and Birth.Movies.Death.

Errol Morris' The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Photography comes out soon! Get your tickets here!

They say the camera never lies, but a camera has only a restricted view of a single moment in time: the camera’s lies are lies of omission, omission of anything outside the frame, of anything before and after that moment.

The place and the time caught by Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera in his 1966 Blow-Up is Swinging London, the same period curated and at least in part created by the photographers Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy and David Bailey, also known as the Black Trinity. These three were at least as famous as the models, rockers, royals, movie stars and gangsters whose orbit they shared, creating iconic images that not only captured that very specific scene but set a whole new template for fashion photography and the role of the photographer within the industry.

Blow-Up focuses on a composite of these real-life figures, a photographer named Thomas who balances the manufactured fakery of his wildly sexual fashion shoots with portraits of the lives and dramas of people outside his elite sphere and its bourgeois ennui. Cruising in his Rolls-Royce with a camera in the glovebox, always looking for the next shot, Thomas lives in fast-forward as Antonioni continually cuts during action, creating a subtle montage effect that reinvents London geography much as London was reinventing itself as it emerged from post-war depression.

It’s during one such cruise that Thomas photographs a couple in a park, much to the ire of the woman who confronts him and demands the film, even tries to wrestle his camera away. During this exchange her partner seemingly disappears, and Thomas continues to photograph her as she runs from the park, distraught.

Thomas enthuses to his agent Ron about how the pictures of this peculiar encounter will provide the perfect ending to his book of portrait photography, completing the narrative he imagines within its pages, but their meeting is disrupted when Thomas spies a man snooping around the Rolls, and chases him away.

Upon the developing the film back at his studio, Thomas notices something unusual. He assembles the photographs in series before enlarging the images of the man and woman in the park again and again until a shadowy figure in the trees with a gun emerges in the final, grainy blow-up. Antonioni pans between and zooms into the blurry images, focusing our attention as Thomas concludes that he has captured the exact moment in which he prevented a murder.

Watching Blow-Up with the ability to manipulate its timeline by pausing and rewinding, it’s easy to see the things Thomas didn't while framing his photographs in the park, but also to see things which aren’t there, artifacts of random motion in the trees, in the grain of the film stock itself.

The human mind is very good at finding patterns, even seeing recognisable objects in random forms, a phenomenon known as pareidolia: it’s why we see animals in clouds and clowns in Rorschach’s inkblots. It’s a useful mental shortcut in familiar places, but in turn opens up the possibility of misinterpreting ambiguous images: hence people see a face in a rock formation on Mars, or any number of shooters on the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza. Thomas’ photographs from the park bear a strong resemblance to those images of JFK's assassination, and it's tempting to think Antonioni had this in mind, along with the Profumo scandal which swept British politics in the early '60s, immortalised in the iconic image of model Christine Keeler nude astride a reversed chair which now hangs in London's National Portrait Gallery.

Blow-Up is less concerned with the real-world events which fall outside its frame, focusing instead on Thomas' satisfaction at extracting some meaning from the blobs and blurs of his photos "like finding a clue in a detective story" as his friend Bill describes finding “something to hang onto” in his own abstract paintings.

But then Thomas looks again, and through another series of enlargements finds what seems to be a body in the grass. Simply by reframing the image, he sees a different narrative, one in which he has caused a murder. Returning to the park and finding the body confirms his fear, but he is spooked before he can gather any evidence and flees, only to find his studio ransacked. Of his photos from earlier there remains but one blow-up, grainy and ambiguous, resembling nothing more than one of Bill's paint-dot abstracts.

Now doubting the reality of what he saw, of the narrative he found in his photographs, Thomas tries to persuade his agent to come to the park as a witness, but Ron and his guests are busy escaping their own reality in clouds of dope. Awakening in a now-deserted house the next morning, Thomas heads back to the park but finds the body missing, his last shred of evidence gone and with it the spark of excitement that had engaged him in life.

We first meet Thomas as he leaves the hostel where he's spent a night taking portraits of drifters for his book, and upon arriving at his studio the first person we see is an assistant retouching pictures from a fashion shoot with ink and brush, attention that won't be given to the down-and-outs. Her modern counterpart would be working in Photoshop, erasing reality and fabricating an image that almost renders the photographer's work invisible, the relentless march of technology changing not only how we perceive ourselves, but how we perceive the world around us. Unlike the camera's lies of omission these are lies of construction, just as cinema itself is a lie constructed frame by frame from the camera's lies.

We last see Thomas as he wanders through the park watching a group of students miming a game of tennis. Once they leave Antonioni's frame we begin to hear the sounds of the ball in play, their imagined reality made real once out of sight, and as he watches them Thomas himself fades from view, vanishing in between the frames of Blow-Up.

Get your The B-Side tickets here!

Related Articles

Comments