Conservation news

Thomas and Verushka: Sexualized Elements of Swinging 60s London

Thomas and Verushka: Sexualized Elements of Swinging 60s Londony

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
Thomas and Verushka: Sexualized Elements of Swinging 60s London
Tina Butler,
May 9, 2005

Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blowup, signals the abrupt transition in the conception of style and beauty as well as the persona of the fashion photographer. The charming, gentle, and paternalistic Avery becomes a myth, and the shy, reserved model—a vague memory. Instead, the audience is presented with a brash, virile and predatory figure of a fashion photographer and still vulnerable and objectified, yet intensely sexual and sexualized models. There are fewer clothes and more sex. Pounding, pulsating rock music and hard, brassy jazz have replaced the show-tunes about the joys of Paris living. The canned, subdued poses of display have been discarded for writhing and thrashing gestures, anything imitating or intimating sexual movement.

Blowup, in every sense, pushes the elements of the “Single Girl” concept to the very limit and propels the true transition into actuality. David Hemmings, as Thomas, is the new, immature yet ‘adult’ substitute for Avery. Based on Bailey, he is presented as a sexual conquistador, using models as personal property to earn his income and satisfy his whims. He is the hot young photographer in his field, with a mod hairdo, a Rolls convertible and desperate young girls aspiring to be models lining up outside his door for a chance to pose and put out for him. Thomas capitalizes on his position of dominance at every possible moment. He is arrogant, abrupt and walks over anyone and everyone to get what he wants. He seems to be in it, (the business of fashion), for the chicks.

The audience’s first encounter with Thomas in the studio quickly reveals his nature. The model for the shoot, (played by Verushka), appears first, but only in reflection. Her identity is denied, or at least compromised, by this initial displaced and fragmented representation. Thomas is late, but makes no apology. The model says, “I’ve been waiting nearly an hour.” “Good,” he replies with conceit. After making a sexually loaded comment to her and removing his shoes and most of his shirt, Thomas gets down to business. He assumes a predator-like countenance and posture as he appraises his model. He has no regard for her except as an object to master, exploit and profit from. With filled wineglass in hand, Thomas commences shooting.

Keeping his distance for only a brief time, soon enough, he has descended on the model, just inches from her face until he is kissing and nibbling her neck in between camera snaps. Thomas commands her movements and controls her body. In a manner similar to Bailey’s infamous style. Straddling the model, he gives orders for behavior in front of the camera, reinforcing his position of power. “This is for me babe, for me. Love me, love me.” The choreography of the shoot and the placement of his body above hers have strong sexual connotations—the movements are like intercourse. When he finishes his roll, exhausted by his exertion and demands of the shoot, he collapses on the couch.

Thomas’s shooting style is interactive and dynamic; he emphasizes his own movements in that every shot is about the movement—he lunges and straddles and maintains a constant physicality. He seems at ease wherever he shoots, yet always working with a tremendous amount of intensity. While photographing an amorous couple in the park, he is discovered and the female half of the twosome (Vanessa Redgrave) comes after him. “Why are you taking my picture? Stop that!” she demands. The construct of the gaze reappears in this scene as Thomas gazes at the couple, at first as an unseen voyeur, and then as a discovered kind of peeping Tom. Thomas justifies his intrusion with a simple and arrogant defense. “It’s my job. Most girls would pay me to photograph them.” He claims ownership of the gaze without apology. Unbelievably, she is won over by his bold confidence. “I’ll pay,” she says. “I’ll overcharge,” he says, slimy grin crawling across his face, “I want other things on the reel.” The act of photographing always comes back to sex for him.

Working is a permanently sexualized activity for Thomas. He often works without a shirt; it seems to be a necessary ritual for him to disrobe in order to begin ‘really’ shooting. Thomas assumes an essentially hybridized figure of a god and a rock star, with his over the top displays of power and intense gusto. His callous disregard for those around him only adds to his personality and reputation. In every interaction with the models, he is consistently and insistently reasserting his ego. At a later shoot, with some less desirable models (in that they are not sexual enough for him), he is more than characteristically dismissive and cruel. Thomas refers to them uniformly as “you.” By removing or denying their singular identities, he increases and intensifies their reduction to objects. “No chewing gum on my floor!” he snaps at one unfortunate model. “Terrible!” he yells later, unsatisfied with their poses. With these women, Thomas is brusque and demeaning. “You should thank your lucky stars you work for me! Smile, smile!” he shouts. His frustration and dissatisfaction with the shoot and his subjects grows until he can no longer bear it, so he tells the models, as if they were children, to close their eyes. Thomas instructs, “Good, stay like that,” then abandons them in the studio. As plainly illustrated in his behavior during photo shoots, Thomas is only concerned with how things will benefit him. This kind of conduct is not relegated to his professional life, but carries over into his personal relationships. At one point, his close female friend Patricia is massaging his head. When she stops, Thomas tells her to resume. When she does not, he stalks off, annoyed. If his whims are not immediately satisfied, if he lacks complete dominance in any moment, Thomas cannot function.

With his colorful displays of arrogance and virility, Thomas surprisingly possesses a poorly hidden self-consciousness. He attempts to disguise his shortcomings with these blatant expressions and behaviors of sexualized masculinity, but his insecurities shine through. “I’m fed up with these bloody bitches,” he exclaims at one point in the film, as a beautiful woman enters the café where he is sitting. Thomas sizes her up and clearly approves, yet she pays him no mind. “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free,” he says. Thomas wants to be rich so that he no longer has to be constantly justifying himself or his work. He desires the attention, value and prestige lavished on wealth and the people attached to it. Thomas attempts to control and overpower the women that are accessible to him to cover his weakness and self-doubt, and the women he cannot control or use to his advantage, he only resents and ultimately dismisses.

The very foundations of fashion photography’s validity as a true art form are indirectly called into question in Blowup. One of Thomas’s friends, an abstract painter tries to explain his work to Thomas. “I don’t mean anything when I do them, it’s just a mess,” as he gestures to one of his paintings. “After I do them, then I find something to hang onto. It sorts itself out.” Fashion photography often seems to be held in the same regard or lack thereof; it does not mean anything. This is most apparent in Thomas’s commitment to documentary, journalistic style photography that he does in addition to his fashion work. Spending nights in seedy halfway houses, inhabited by prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals, Thomas attempts to justify, buffet or combat his involvement in a seemingly frivolous activity and industry. The schism between is fashion shoots and reportage of real-life struggle exhibit the diverse facets of fashion photography, while the photographer’s involvement in both reveals his misgivings about certain aspects of his art. When his own art fails him, when the thing he has committed himself to and invested all of his faith in, deceives him, Thomas becomes an essentially broken man. The photographic images he creates constitute his life and feeling of worth and importance. As he can no longer control the images that he makes, and determine their content and aesthetic—when he loses that, Thomas has nothing, save for his bitterness and conceit.

Beyond the disillusionment of the photographer, Blowup is strongly influenced and marked by its social, spatial and historical contexts. The film captures a playful and irresponsible 1960s London, full of sex, swingers and seduction. The diegesis is very specific and in looking at the text with a contemporary eye, Blowup presents elements of the scandalous and the dull, with such elements having opposite effects on the modern audience.

The decadent milieu was enormously attractive at the time. Parts of the film have flip-flopped in meaning. Much was made of the nudity in 1967, but the photographer’s cruelty toward his models was not commented on; today, the sex seems tame, and what makes the audience gasp is the hero’s contempt for women. (Ebert)

Blowup translates into the current moment, just in ways previously unanticipated at the time of its creation and release. Even more than thirty years after the film’s release, Blowup still maintains and provokes some kind of social relevance and reaction from its viewing public. The topic of debate is not significant; the paramount issue is that Blowup still exists, works and matters within a social space, regardless of the original historical context.