Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Movie That Changed My Life

In 1966, I was a high school sophomore at a boys boarding school in upstate New York. The school was known for its college-level hockey program, as well as a ski racing team that landed several skiers on the U.S. Olympic team. The soccer and lacrosse teams were also above average. Suffice it to say, excelling at one of these sports was a prerequisite to having credibility on campus.

I, on the other hand, was not adept at any of these things. I was the gangly kid on the sidelines, taking photos for the school newspaper. For me, 'scoring a goal' meant coming up with a perfect black & white print in the school's darkroom. I was perfectly content to pursue my extracurricular achievements in the orange-glow solitude of the photo lab. The jocks ignored me, and I ignored them.

Then, in the fall of '66 something happened that changed everything: the movie Blow-Up came out. The entire student body walked to the village movie theater one Saturday night. I had only a vague idea of what the movie was about, but as it unfolded on the big screen, I felt surely I must be dreaming. Overnight, Blow-Up changed the profession of photography from something utilitarian to something truly exotic.

The film, directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni, features actor David Hemmings as a successful British fashion photographer, likely inspired by New York photographer Richard Avedon. Blow-Up introduced the idea that a camera can be a means of discovery, not just a tool for documentation.

During the next week, the effect on my campus credibility was extraordinary. Upperclassmen, who had never given me the time of day, suddenly wanted me to teach them how to use a camera. It was a whole new ballgame. I'd already knew I had a knack for shooting portraits, but this turn of events strengthened my resolve. I became the school's official portrait photographer.

Prior to seeing Blow-Up, most of my portraits were shot on location. The movie inspired me to move my camera into the studio—along with a sound system to blast some provocative tunes. (Note the speakers in the image above.) The school found me some studio space in an unused storage room in the basement of one of the dorms. 40 years later, I still prefer shooting in the studio.

Blow-Up also had an extraordinary effect on the public at large. I believe this movie is largely responsible for the rise in photography's popularity as a means of personal expression. Its effect on sales of 35mm cameras is not to be underestimated.

I watched Blow-Up not long ago. I hadn't seen it in decades. It looks dated now, in the same sort of way bell bottom jeans look dated. The female characters seem two-dimensional, the relationships simplistic. But that just shows how far we've come. Two generations of photographers were influenced by Blow-Up, many without even realizing it. Whenever I see someone exploring their life through the lens of a camera, I think of this movie.