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In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was looking for a location to shoot his cult Cannes festival award winning film starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, Blow Up, and hey, he chose where I worked as a photographer’s assistant to John Cowan! He was introduced to John Cowan by Terence Donovan at Cowan’s studio. The studio was originally a barn for horse hay and straw, and had a unique atmosphere of excitement. There was a flat at one end of the studio with a huge screen that overlooked it. Antonioni knew immediately that this was what he wanted. A deal was done and he rented the premises for three months. We set up a temporary office outside on the street in a mobile home, and we used locations for most of the fashion shoots during this period. The film was about a photographer who thinks he has witnessed a murder through his camera. Blow-Up Trailer 1966 Extended version.
This was the time of my life. My boss was one of the top ten Vogue photographers in London, and I was right in the middle of it working night and day. I was a 20 year old, living La Vida Loca, surrounded by, and sometimes photographing for their portfolios (and mine), some of the loveliest girls in London. Looking back I feel really lucky to have been part of what was, as class distinction began to crumble, a huge social revolution in Britain. Here is my account of where fact meets fiction. I do not reveal the plot, but if you would rather watch the film before reading this, you can buy it at a very reasonable price from here.
The studio was at 39 Princes Place, Princedale Rd, off Holland Park Avenue, London W11 – the Notting Hill area. It was run down then, but it is a very up-market area now.
During filming I spent much of the time doing John’s prints in the darkroom entered by the small door just inside the garage barn doors. There are glimpses of it as Thomas (David Hemmings) enters and exits the main studio door and you can see it here, just by his right shoulder. The space where Hemmings is walking was usually occupied by John Cowan’s pale metallic blue Aston Martin DB5 as depicted in the early Bond films.
The darkroom in the film was built by set builders as was the catwalk leading to it along the wall. This meant that I could still operate the darkroom that was situated under John’s flat for every day processing and printing during the hire to Michelangelo Antonioni. We were as busy as ever and someone had to get the prints out! We spent much of the time in an office caravan parked in Princes Place. We photographed fashion shoots on location or hired other studios while filming was in progress. John’s studio had been hired for 3 months at £100 per day – equivalent to each England player’s £100 bonus for winning the 1966 world cup! It was big money. You could buy a brand new E-Type Jag for £1,800.
John Cowan had ‘Air Call’ installed in his Aston Martin as did Hemmings in the film. This was a system whereby you made a radio call to a central operator who would in turn make a phone call for you and relay the conversation both ways. It was very expensive and I only knew two people who used it. One was John Cowan and the other was John’s mate, Terence Donovan. Terence also had a Rolls-Royce convertable because top photographers could earn a fortune, about £30,000 a year and it was tax deductible. The average working wage then was about £750 a year.
We had a girl in reception who could answer phones, spot and retouch prints, organise props and sometimes make tea. Her name was Sue and she was married to the drummer Andrew Steele of The Herd. She was great fun and I remember her well. (Big Hi if you are out there Sue!) Here the receptionist greets ‘Thomas’ as he enters the studio after a night in the doss house, where he has been taking photographs for his book. All pretty close to ’60s life so far.
I did most of the processing and particularly the printing (I was very skilled at this) while Frank, John’s senior assistant would work on shoots. Sometimes we would swap roles to keep it lively.
Thomas starts the first shoot of the day with Veruschka playing herself. Veruschka was born on 14 May 1939 in East Prussia as Vera Gottliebe Anna Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort. For a short time, she enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle residing in East Prussia in a large house on an enormous estate that had been in her family for centuries. Her mother was the former Countess Gottliebe von Kalnein (b. 1913). Her father was a German count and army reserve officer who became a key member of the German Resistance, reportedly after witnessing Jewish children being beaten and killed. When Veruschka was five years old, Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort was executed for attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the July 20 Plot.(Ref. Wikipedia). Respect.
Hemmings’s character whispers sweet words of suggestive encouragement to Veruschka during a clinch.
John had a great flat that overlooked the studio via this window. There was a lot of space.
Thomas kicks off the second shoot of the day armed with the legendary Hasselblad 500c fitted with three extras. A magnifying prism for fine accurate focusing, a crank handle for fast winding, and a focusing ring lever on the lens for ease of action. All the photographic equipment portrayed in the film was highly accurate down to the smallest details. It was what we used every day and Antonioni’s property department paid close attention to us when we were at work. Behind Thomas are two of Cowan’s fashion pictures. One of Jill Kennington paragliding in culottes, and the other of her tied to a speedboat. Health and safety? Never heard of it!
This is where reality starts to fall down slightly as Thomas (David Hemmings) is taking a technically impossible shot. With the girls so spread out distance wise from the camera, it would be impossible to get them all in focus using Hasselblad equipment in such a scenario. There is such a thing as ‘depth of field’ and as Tom is not using flash the problem would only exacerbate. If John Cowan had asked myself or Frank to create such a set, we would have put him straight long before it reached celluloid.
Reg the assistant, stands ready with another magazine of film to clip onto the Hasselblad. Keeping film loaded was a vital and hectic job for the assistant during shooting. There were 12 exposures and that gave you just about enough time to reload for the photographer. I could empty and reload a magazine in about 25 seconds. When Cowan really got going, both I and Frank would load magazines.
Reg charges a Nikon. With 35mm we would use two or three Nikons and just keep swapping them to keep the flow. ‘Reg’ was played by real life photographer’s assistant Reg Wilkins. Reg was assistant to iconic ’60s celebrity and royals photographer David Montgomery at the time. He was also the film’s Photographic Advisor to director Michalangelo Antonioni. I have always thought that the photographic details depicted in the film were wholly accurate, and that the props department must have been well informed. Now I know why!
Thomas leaves the studio and a perplexed fashion editor who has no lines in the movie. Antonioni uses silence quite a lot in the film, sometimes it says more than words. She is sitting in front of our camera safe which was made from armoured steel. All cameras were locked in there overnight. This is the safe which played a major role in another story.
In this scene Thomas sits in our reception and weighs up two would be models hoping for a test shoot. David Hemmings was a highly skilled magician of the old school and a member of the exclusive magic circle. He was brilliant at sleight of hand and an amazing pick pocket. He could have your watch, braces and wallet off you long before you left the pub, and you never felt a thing until it was your turn to pay for a round of drinks, or your trousers fell down. I saw him re-enact this on five victims in eight seconds when he was a guest on Michael Parkinson’s chat show. He just asked Michael’s other guests to stand like passengers in the tube, then he bumped along them in the fashion of a train in motion and stripped them of all watches, wallets and a pair of braces!
He was a master of card tricks and showed us a few that you would have believed impossible using just an ordinary pack of cards from behind the bar. During the three months filming, I joined cast and crew in the pub on several occasions to witness this phenomenon. Like all good magicians he never gave a trick away.
Hemmings nonchalantly rolls a coin over his fingers while telling the girls he didn’t have time to have his appendix out, let alone take their pictures. I have seen a few magicians do this but never quite so fluently as Hemmings.
Thomas makes his escape from No. 39 whilst being pursued ‘Beatles fan’ fashion, by over exuberant would be fashion models. A Rolls-Royce was a legitimate tax deductible expense.
Thomas visits an antique shop he is thinking of buying. Some photographers were making so much money in the ’60s that it became almost compulsory to own another business in order to offset the crippling 90% tax burden for high earners. Antiques or restaurants conveniently fitted the lifestyle.
My favourite jacket around this time was a dark green suede ‘levi’ style jacket that I wore with white Levi jeans. My footwear was classic jodhpur boots – elastic sided boots normally used for horse riding. Wardrobe seems to have taken more than a keen interest in what we were wearing at the time, and I would dare to suggest that their choice of Thomas’s gear was inspiration rather than just coincidence!
Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) does a runner in Maryon Park after mysteriously begging Thomas for his camera film. The park is where the crux of the film title subject takes place. First names are not used much throughout the film, and the first clue you get about them is when you view the credits.
After the park, Thomas goes to meet his publisher to show him the latest photo proofs for his book. This restaurant was situated at Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea. All the film locations can be viewed at this website.
Thomas chats with his publisher Ron (Peter Bowles) about his book. The girl about to walk past the occupied duo is actress Susan Farr, who was John Cowan’s steady girl fiend at the time.
Culford Gardens opposite the restaurant. I knew the Sunday Times Young Photographer of the Year, Quentin Jacobsen who started wearing military uniforms long before they became fashionable through Carnaby Street. He used to buy them second hand from Jewish tailors in the East End where relatives had sold grandpa’s old uniform. He would also buy double breasted pin striped ‘gangster’ style suits long before they became fashionable after the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ film. Another thing – he would go round asking for old enamel advert signs, I helped him get them down. I thought he was crazy but again he predicted they would become collectable years before they actually did. Amazing guy old Quentin. He blew his whole £250 prize money on a late 1920’s Cadillac ‘gangster style’ car, complete with running boards. He now lives in Australia and takes great landscapes with an old ‘school photograph type’ panoramic camera. He bought the camera from a second hand shop. No stitching together several pictures panorama style in Photoshop for him.
The studio is marked by the black doors down on the left. The phone box on the right was installed by the then General Post Office, for the film at Antonioni’s request. The area was quite shabby in 1966. Holland Park was not exactly the West End. Rag and bone men roamed the streets in their horse and carts, and there were some rough pubs best avoided on a Saturday night. Today Princes Place has been brought into the 21st century, like the surrounding and fashionable Notting Hill.
Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) makes her second appearance in the film as she rushes up to Thomas (David Hemmings) as he enters the studio premises.
Thomas and Jane enter the studio. As studios went, John Cowan’s was extremely spacious, up, down and sideways. You could quite easily drive a car in and we often did. It was sometimes hired out for car interior shoots and I remember a series we shot for Men In Vogue of girls and exotic cars. I can remember the dark green AC Cobra and John’s DB5 as two of the cars, a red Maserati, and I remember Jaqueline Bisset and Rachael Welch as two of the girls. I think actress Tracy Reed was another and also Alexandra Bastedo, later of ‘The Champions’ fame.
Hemmings talks to Vanessa in front of a John Cowan picture of camels in Oman. John was sometimes a guest of the Sultan of Oman and would often go to the Emirates on location.
Jane takes a ‘pew’ with an eye on the iconic Nikon F 35mm camera shown in the split screen. The Nikon F became a legend, used by professional photographers world wide. After this film, sales of the Nikon F soared, probably one of the first dramatic examples of product placement!
In this scene where Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) enters the flat, she stands nervously near the street window which is one of the few features of the building that is still recognisable today, see the picture below.
One detail remains untouched on the exterior of the building today. The front street window shown above. The beams in the room that was John Cowan’s flat and the upper studio in the film are clearly visible. The rest of the exterior is unrecognisable compared to the exterior in the film. The double doors have gone replaced by windows, the front door has been moved and the brick walls are painted white. This picture is a blow-up(!) courtesy of Google’s Street View.
Thomas (David Hemmings) takes Jane’s number, standing just by the beam, which is shown in the modern photo above.
Tom opens the door to take delivery of a propeller he has bought from the antique shop he visited and intends to buy.
Thomas marches in with the propeller. This view is from the catwalk. In the background are stacked rolls of ‘Colorama’ – 9 foot wide paper backdrops, and the rectangular perspex thing is a 5000 joule Strobe light. This is the light that I used to take this shot of socialite Elizabeth Hooley.
J.C. had the propeller mounted on a beam in his flat after the filming had finished. Exactly where Vanessa Redgrave suggests it should hang in the film. I believe it was from a vintage Bristol fighter. There seems to be a slight continuity problem with the Colorama, which is now mysteriously rearranged. We had probably been using it outside.
Thomas walks along the catwalk that had been built for the film leading to the set-built darkrooms situated at the end. The construction of these enabled us to continue using the dark room under John’s flat undisturbed.
Hemmings enters the darkroom. You can see the roof timbers that gave the studio it’s unique character.
Thomas goes to the door of a flat where his publisher is attending a party. I was always told that this was somewhere in Cheyne Walk, Kensington but I can’t find anything there that resembles it today. I do know that the exact location was a secret. It was later rumoured that real ‘grass’ was smoked during the party scenes. That would have been a good enough reason for secrecy.
Thomas finds that he has crashed out during the party and awakes alone the following morning in the deserted flat.
Hemming’s character wanders back to Maryon Park beginning to doubt himself. Maybe that is why he was called Thomas.
He ends up watching an imaginary tennis match between two mimes played by Julian and Claude Chagrin.
J.C gets a mention in the credits.
If you have got this far, congratulations, you may now want to see the film. It can be purchased very reasonably from here, and make you the proud owner of one of the most important cult films of the century. If you click on the link in store, you can also read the many reviews of the film itself.