Monday, August 25, 2008

Blow Up: The Explosion of Meaning

by Katerina Tryfonidou

“They do not mean anything when I do them, just a mess… Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg today…” says the painter pointing at a part of the painting- a painting he did six years ago. “It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.”

Blow Up is a film by Michelangelo Antonioni that was screened in 1966. The film has a loose plot close to a detective story set in London in the contemporary at the time Swinging 60s. Almost at the same time when Blow Up was first shown, in the middle of the intellectual discourse about linguistics, French thinker Roland Barthes discusses about the imposition of meaning, and the distinction in works of art between what he calls Work and what he calls Text.

This text can be seen as an eclectic surgical section in time: it looks at the film and tries to understand it in the linguistic framework that was developing at the same time. It also goes on to argue that Antonioni was well aware of the ongoing semiotic discourse and that his film is a commentary about the creation of meaning, its imposition on art, and ultimately, the explosion of meaning.

1. Introduction

There is a scene in the beginning of the Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up, where Dave Hemmings, the photographer in the film and also the protagonist, asks a painter friend of his, Bill, what is there on one of his paintings. “They do not mean anything when I do them, just a mess… Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg today…” he says pointing a part of the painting- a painting he did six years ago. “It’s like finding a clue in a detective story,” he continues.

In this short monologue Antonioni briefly throws some light on the problematics about the representation of reality or the message of an image. In a very clever way, he also forshadows the detective story that is to be unfolded later on in the film. The issue of the construction of a narrative will be the main idea of the paper -either this is done by a sequence of photos or a sequence of shots- . Questions like “How do we impose meaning?”, “What is the relation between the signifier and the signified?” or “Can reality be reconstructed in a work of art?” will be haunting us throughout this short text.

2. Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text

Roland Barthes writes the paper From Work to Text in 1971[i], five years after Blow Up’s first screening. He uses the terms Work and Text in the beginning referring to literary works but then expands the notions to painting, music and film. In this short paper Barthes introduces the idea of the Text and distincts it from Work, stating that Text is a broader idea, a more abstract one, a characterization that goes beyond the object. He goes on to define Text mainly by opposing it to Work, with an intention to define a new idea, thus being very explanatory, but without using any examples.

The research and literary work during that time forced the definition and articulation of text, as research was then talking about interdisciplinary-ity and fields sliding or blending in one another. In this frame of thinking, the Text is interdisciplinary because it emerges from the need to define notions with the tools of different disciplines[ii].

When Work is a fragment of substance, a material object, Text is a methodological field, a process and an activity. As Barthes says characteristically “Work can be held in the hand, Text is held in language.”[iii] That is, a work can be seen, exposed and demonstrated while a Text is the process of demonstration per se. A Work is meant to be consumed, it is an object or a product. Text, however, is the process of creating such an object, the process of breaking it, fragmenting it, superimposing it to others. In the notion of Text there is no focus on the subject and the object, this segregation does not exist, or better, it is not relevant, because it is the act and the process that the Text appeals to. Work can be seen as an organism that has certain characteristics, functions and potentials. The metaphor of the Text is that of a network, a combinatory system –to use, according to Barthes, a biological concept.- As a network it organizes different groups, ideas or works and subsequently redefines them. The metaphor of a network is also relevant to the etymology of the word text- textile, fabric, a woven material[iv]. The process of weaving together different elements approaches the idea of the Text as a process, a system and an activity, rather than a final outcome.

Blow Up has a lot of elements that makes one think that Michelangelo Antonioni was familiar with the semiotics and the linguistic research of the 60s. Although the latter cannot be proved, it is not impossible either: after all, Antonioni was known to follow closely the work of Adorno[v] and other philosophers. It can therefore be an anachronistic challenge to try to pursue an analysis of the movie in terms of whether it remains a Work or it can be seen as a Text.



one discipline


fragment of substance

methodological field

the object of demonstration

the process of demonstration

can be held in the hand

held in language



general sign

deferment of the signified

moderately symbolic

radically symbolic



father, auteur

no father, no auteur, author as a 'guest'



object of consumption

activity, production, practice

pleasure of consumption

pleasure without separation



Copy of a diagram done in a seminar at Harvard University by Professor Michael Hays

2. Signification_ Meaning_ Signified

As we have mentioned before, the ‘vague’ plot of the movie looks at the life of a teddy-boy photographer in London during the swinging 60s and focuses on an incident where he takes some pictures of a couple in a park. As he processes the negatives, he realizes that he has shot evidence of a murder.

Let’s take a close look of the sequence where the photographer develops the photographs and starts to unravel the mystery. In the first shot he enters his lab, he takes his utensils in order to start the developing process. This is a long shot where he is shown to take all his tools and gadgets without any rush. In the next shot the door closes and there is the door and a red lit light covering the whole frame. The editing here is sudden and sharp, from a long continuous scene where the viewers control most of the space and the protagonist’s movements, to a close up of the door and the light next to it. The same double shots are shown in a slight variation, with the photographer holding the bands of negatives, and the door shutting again.

In the next shot, there is the man going over the negatives on a lit surface with the help of a lens, and then with the natural movements of a professional, he puts it in the projector and projects it on a vertical white paper on the wall to have the photo printed. The shot is long, the camera steady again. The director shows the exact process, exposes all the equipment, surfaces and materials needed in order to understand that the printed outcome is the result of a very real procedure. The sequence continues with him going several times from his lab to the lounge to pin up the wet, sleek pictures he just produced. There is a juxtaposition of long takes of the photographer working to develop the photos and moving back and forth, and of the photos themselves. There are shots where there is the man watching the photos and then on the next shot there is the object he is watching, the black and white photos. There are times when the camera moves from one photo to the other and other times when this is succeeded by the editing. In this way the narrative is constructed little by little: first there is the couple playing romantically in the park, in the next photo they are hugging and in the third the woman’s gaze is captured by something in the bushes.

In one of these shots where the photographer observes the images, he notices that something caused the girl to turn her face. From that point on, there starts a process of blowing up the photo, that is zooming in the image and printing one piece of it bigger and bigger. The sequence evolves as in the first half: lab work- pin up- observation- stills of the photos. In the last part of the sequence there is the narration of the story by the succession of the printed photos. Then, there is no photographer: the frames are composed of gros-plans of the photos in the order of the story which is unfolding, with partial ‘explanatory’ zoom- in. The scene is created with such dexterity that the spectators are driven with the same curiosity with the photographer to go from one blow up to the other in order to follow the story. Little by little the photos become hard to understand, as the resolution gets poor and the grain in the photos more evident. Yet the transition occurs in such a way that there is a perfect succession of the photos, the one photo poses a question that the next one answers; till we reach a point that more blow up does not bring us to a next step, because the photo becomes full of grains, like one of those paintings the photographer’s friend is painting.

The sequence with the blow ups can be seen as a commentary in the direction of the semiotic discussion in the 60s. In his article The Photographic Message, published in 1961[vi], Roland Barthes attempts an analysis of the impact of photography and in particular, of the press photograph. In this article he claims that from all the representational arts, photography is the one mostly linked with reality. Photography owns its credibility to the fact that, unlike painting or sculpture, “in order to move from reality to its photograph, it is in no way necessary to divide up this reality into units, and to constitute these units as signs, substantially different from the object they communicate”. A Photograph is of course not reality, it is reducted in many ways, but it stays a direct analogon of reality. Thus, for Barthes, the special status of the image can be seen: “it is a message without a code.”[vii] This statement regards the photograph as a mere signifier which does not incorporate in its identity a system of understanding it. It is the society, or the different cultures, Barthes will say later on in the article, that impose the signification and create the signified.

But there lies a paradox: although photograph is on the one hand a denoted message, a message without a code, nevertheless there is also a connoted message underlining in this sign. It is the result of the action of the creator, the style with which the photograph was taken, that refers to a certain culture and a certain historic time. Hence, the photograph comprises of two messages, the analogon of reality (denoted message) and the ideological or aesthetic message (connoted)[viii]. The paradox lies on the fact that it is culture and society that imposes signification on a photograph but nevertheless the photograph per se carries in its creation an amount of this cultural meaning.

To return to the film, when the photographer develops the first photographs, before the blow ups, he is able to see the photographs- signs as signifiers that bare a connoted message: there is a photo of a couple hugging in the park, flirting and playing. [Due to the connoted message of the society he lives in,] it is easy to impose a signified on the image that is in front of him. However, after he starts blowing up the photographs and putting them in order, a totally different meaning is revealed. He starts seeing another version of reality or –in the semiotic terms- he imposes another signified to each photograph. Eventually he creates a series of photos that narrate a very different version of reality: the couple in the park was being watched by a man with a gun who finally shoots the man of the couple. The photographer constructs this different narration by looking at the photos in a different way and by extracting from them some parts of their signifier.

The narration is constructed by looking at the photographs in the right order. The one photo leads to the other, and with every next blow up, another clue contributes to the unfolding of the narration. Therefore the photographs constitute a system where, each one of them is needed in the right place in the sequence in order for the story to be revealed. Antonioni wants to make this very clear and he does that by showing the opposite; what if some of the photos would be taken away? Later on in the story Vanessa Redgraves, who plays the woman of the couple, steals all the photos and leaves just one. However, the one left behind is useless as a proof of the crime. As Sarah Mayers- comments “It looks like one of Pete’s paintings.” The photo remains as a signifier, emptied by the signified it used to have when being part of a system. Exactly like Bill’s paintings: he first draws them and then as he observes them, he gives them a signified. Antonioni literary puts Bill’s character to say that: “They do not mean anything when I do them, just a mess… Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg today…” The fact that there is this commentary on paintings in the film is to strengthen the point Antonioni wants to make on imposing signification and on the creation of the narration.

When this point has been made about painting and photography, it is easy for someone to go one step further and make the same correlations about film. Indeed, Antonioni makes a commentary on semiotics in relation to painting and photography to connote the same about film. After all, the character of the photographer- creator bares many similarities with the role of the director- also creator of a narrative. In this movie, more than in any other one of his films, Antonioni talks about the art of film making and the construction of a narrative.

Throughout film theory, many theorists have approached cinema through the evolution of photography[ix]. Bazin talks about the proximity of photography to reality to go on and claim the same documentary function for the cinema[x]. In Antonioni, the bond between photography and film is more than evident: he handles the composition of the shots with an extraordinary attention on the mis-en-scene; every single shot can be isolated and treated as a photograph. The framing, the angle, the elements that constitute each shot are parameters that both a photographer and the director have to deal with. In both cases likewise, there are stills put in order to generate a sequence. As the character of Dave Hemmings isolates some parts of reality manipulates and reorganizes them so as they make a narrative, respectively the director selects fragments of reality and constructs his own version of it. With the metaphor of a photographer constructing a narration by revealing a different version of reality , Michelangelo Antonioni discusses the role of the director in the film.

3. The process of Photography, The Materiality of the Photograph

In the previous paragraph we discussed how the director makes a commentary on the process of film making. Antonioni films a man that constructs a narrative by focusing on un-seen parts of reality and by organizing them together. Apart from the use of the story in this direction, Antonioni uses other methods as well in order to make the connection of Blow Up to the making of a film. One of the techniques that he uses is his persistence in the process of developing photos.

In the film, there are many sequences, the most characteristic of which is the one of the blow up of photos, where the process of developing and printing photos is presented. All the different equipment is introduced, as well as the dark rooms with their special furnishing, lighting, etc. For the spectators, it is as if we experience a course of developing photos: the director analytically shows every stage of the process, from the developing of the film, to the projection of the negatives, to the manipulation with the chemicals for the printing. Going through the process, we understand that the photographs are the outcome of a very material, articulated, ‘hand-made’ process. The reference on different lens and lighting, as well as the shot where the photographer takes a picture of a picture are direct comments on the parallel between film making and photography.

Furthermore, Michelangelo Antonioni insists on showing the materiality of the photographs and of the process of developing photos. For Antonioni, the photograph is a sign that communicates a message. A part of this message, as in Barthes, exists in the signifier and another part of it is imposed on the signifier by a person, a group of people, or society. However, apart from these different messages, Antonioni reminds us that a photograph is also an object generated through a process and that it has certain material characteristics. When Dave Hemmings holds the photograph and goes to hang it on the wall, the paper is wet and slippery, water dripping from it. In other shots, the reflections on the glossy paper do not allow the image to be fully presented on the screen. Furthermore, the fact that the image has certain capacities in terms of resolution, and that the image has grains after the several zoom- in, also give hints about the materiality of the analogic photograph.

In Blow Up, a thorough study of the photograph is presented. We explore the different messages of the photographic image, the photograph as a sign that functions as a signifier and has various signified(s) imposed on it. At the same time, however, we are constantly reminded of the object of the photograph with its material qualities and limits, as well as of the process that led to its production. Through the exposure to the process of the development, Antonioni introduces what happens behind the screen of the film, and takes the discussion of the photographic message a step further: he thinks about the message of the film, what it can or cannot communicate, and how transparent the process of film- making can be.

4. Work _Text

In Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni presents a line of thoughts about the photographer and his relation to the photograph in order to make the transition to the auteur and his relation to film. The two dualities, one exposed and one connoted, is the one as the alter ego of the other. The first one is evident in the film by means of the plot, the second one by means of the framing, the angles, the camera movements, the composition of the shots. We could in the pursuit to understand the two pairs of interactions, the film is trying to transform from a Work to a Text, the way Barthes defined the terms.

A film is a priori a work, an object of consumption, in Barthes’ words[xi]. In order for it to function as a Text, it has to turn from a fragment of construction into a methodological tool. To do that, a work or film should generate a new approach, or suggest the tools for a new reading of the work. In this way, Blow Up can be considered a text, because it introduces a way of filming where the director makes his presence evident, and the relationship of the film maker and the film is explored. It can be seen as one of the films that fold into themselves, and which phrase the question of what film is about. Therefore Blow Up introduces a new way for the viewers of experiencing a film, not just to accept what is on the screen but to try to get a hint about the process of making the work of art.

Process, activity and practice were some key words for the notion of Text. Barthes stated that “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production.”[xii] In Blow Up this activity of production is presented in different levels: first –and superficial- the developing of the photos in the plot, with the hand made process and the use of the equipment; second, the process of film making as a metaphor of photography; and third, the more general idea of reconstructing reality and imposing new meaning by means of film and photography. In various levels and readings in the film, certain parts of reality are chosen, blown up or manipulated and then put together again to construct a version of reality- a representation or a new text. The process of working in several layers –the plot, the role and presence of the director, the semiotics analysis- constitute a plurality that according to Barthes differentiates a Text from Work. Of course there are many works that function in different levels of meaning, and that does not turn them into Texts; however, Blow Up has the ability to suggest a tool, a mechanism or a network in order to weave the different threads of thought together. The activity of production or representation is studied in many different aspects: photography as production and representation, film as production or representation, and therefore it constitutes a passage from one meaning to the other.

Another of Barthes’ main arguments in the definition of a Text addresses the relation of the subject to the object. Barthes believes that in art there should be no distinction between reading and writing, playing music and listening to music, creating and experiencing. The two activities should be merged into one, the way children play a game or the way pagan rituals were held. Hence when talking about a Text, there is no respect for the author, because the Text is open to be broken, understood or changed by everyone. It does not belong to the author, the author can return to the Text as a guest, no longer privileged or authoritative. To better understand this point, he gives the two examples- the only ones that exist in the paper: Aristotle and the Holy Scripture are Texts that have been read, interpreted and changed without any attention to the authors. For Barthes, the Text should ask the question of who is producing it, so that audience and creator blend the one in the other[xiii].

In this sense of the Text, Blow Up does not fit in the definition. Although it tries a lot to involve the audience into the discussion of the construction of a narrative or the representation of reality, by nature it cannot resist the gap between the audience and the work. Blow Up was a film in the theaters, and people watching it are used to face it as an object for consumption, even in the case it causes interesting discussions and problematics. Blow Up has not managed to cancel the distance between the audience and the work on the screen. This is a challenge that Blow Up, or film in general, hasn’t yet achieved.

We can say that Blow Up balances between being a Work or a Text, in the way that Barthes phrases the terms. It goes beyond a work as an object for consumption, but does not succeed to be characterized as a Text. After all, as its title suggests, Blow Up constitutes an explosion: an explosion of images, signified(s) and meanings. And as an explosion it can be a very strong dynamic starting point, but it needs more elements so that the explosion can signal a new era.

[i] Barthes Roland, From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[ii] Barthes Roland, “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] In the movie La Notte, by M.Antonioni, one of the characters asks the other what did he think of the new book by Adorno.

[vi] Barthes Roland, “The Photographic Message” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] And others of course, see in other fields the precedents of film: Eisenstein believed that architecture is more than any other discipline related to film: When a person moves in a building or walks a certain path, his eyes create framings and editing in the same way that the camera and the director ‘see’, frame and edit sequences of images. (Eisenstein, Montage, October,)

[x] Bazin Andre, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, in Film theory and Criticism, ed. By L. Braudy and M. Cohen, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[xi] Barthes Roland, “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Barthes Roland, “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, Noonday Press Ed., 1989.

1 comment:

Digger derrick said...

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