Vanessa Redgrave in her ’60s roles
In the worlds of theater and literature, Bertolt Brecht is certainly an icon – and in political and activist circles where actress Vanessa Redgrave is a leftist icon too.
Photography and film addicts may even know of her from e.g. Blowup⤵︎ (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni. I find Redgrave’s thoughts and activities in the late sixties to be central to some of these movements in art and Western culture at the time. I was too young to notice then.
Vanessa Redgrave was cast and embedded in these universes early on – but Brecht has also played a role in her script, namely as a figure of political inspiration for the now 85 year old British actress through decades of activism with a global outlook. Even when winning an Oscar in 1978, she confronted the film industry and the audience in her acceptance speech.
Vanessa Redgrave has certainly played Brecht in her later career, but check out Vanessa in 1966-67 as well if you like, i.e. right before Redgrave directly led rallies against the war in Vietnam and also took up a whole range of other issues about racism, capitalism, war, colonialism…. plus there are beautiful glimpses of the London scene of the time. And a particularly beautiful moment in the interview when VR tells about how she handles being unpopular for being outspoken:
So while Redgrave triumphed on stage and in movies in the late 60s, incl. earning her an Oscar nomination in Reisz’ Isadora Duncan film, she devoted herself to anti-war activities off the stage.
In 1969, Redgrave ended a 40 minute speech to students at UCLA by calling for action and by reading these ending lines from Brecht’s famous 1939 poem “A Bad Time for Poetry”:
A rhyme in my song
Would seem almost wanton.
Inside me contend
Enthusiasm at the blossoming apple tree
And horror at the housepainter’s speeches.
But only the latter
Drives me to write.
Written in Denmark by an exiled Bertolt Brecht, few would doubt who the housepainter was at the time. What Vanessa Redgrave read in LA was a slightly different translation of Schlechte Zeit für Lyrik, perhaps a translation of her own (the ’60s filmstills in the video are from her various roles)
But if the apple tree in blossom loses its importance there is a huge risk that spirit goes with the wind – and perhaps even the will to fight the housepainter’s attempt to gloss over the state of things, incl. the purity of a whitish magnolia or an apple flower.
This dilemma is well-known to many photographers who could document the horrors and injustices in this world – but may wish to reaffirm its beauty and wonder instead. And feel that they can inspire and sustain true values more this way than by adding further “truth” about the misery felt in the media – and in the arts, as well as in our everyday lives.
Beyond metaphors, there is of course the added threat nowadays of no apple flowers at all in some regions due to bee-killing pesticides, climate change and lack of biodiversity. Of course this awareness may be combined and coupled with the sheer beauty of apple trees in blossom – whether the trees are appreciated for their beauty alone or for the promising harvest to be expected from such flower abundance.
I felt torn early on when reportage and documentary still played an important role and ran parallel to my ’80s art work. I may not have felt the urgency of the conflict as deeply as Vanessa Redgrave did in 1969, but it was certainly there. It was certainly a theme when writing my PhD about photographer W. Eugene Smith who always wanted to “let truth be the prejudice” but had to endure such hard times as he tried to live up to his ideals (more quotes from a.o. my thesis on The Walk to Paradise Garden 1)
I am an idealist. I often feel I would like to be an artist in an ivory tower. Yet it is imperative that I speak to people, so I must desert that ivory tower. To do this, I am a journalist—a photojournalist. But I am always torn between the attitude of the journalist, who is a recorder of facts, and the artist, who is often necessarily at odds with the facts. My principle concern is for honesty, above all honesty with myself…
Blowup ⏐ Blow-up ⏐ Blow Up
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Antonioni lets a photographer enlarge some frames from a set of negatives shot in a London park. The photographer gives the “wrong” roll of film to a woman caught by his camera upon her request that he hand over his negatives – as she does not want to be seen with her lover also in the scene.
Vanessa Redgrave in her late 20s plays Jane, the woman who sort of embarks on a flirt to make Thomas hand out his negatives from the park.
Thomas discerns what he believes is a body and a possible murderer in the background. He goes to the park again and does indeed find a dead body back there. He forgot his camera but upon return finds a ransacked studio with those particular prints and negatives all gone… except for one rather grainy blown up image which the police wouldn’t be able to gather much evidence from had he called them.
There’s more to the movie… and it all ends with the photographer watching a group of people who mime a tennis game in the park. Yet there is sound from the “tennis lawn” and Thomas even pretends to pick up an imaginary tennis ball and throw it back to the mime players.
To make sense of this ending may not be all that easy, but I don’t find it entirely offset from the film’s narrative as sometimes claimed.2
Blowup is not a terrorist movie then… and it may actually invite some more reflections as to the nature of the photographic medium.
The camera serves as a voyeuristic tool in the film – and the male gaze even becomes a tool of surveillance once the park turns into a possible crime scene before his eyes. But the photographic emulsion reaches its resolution limit and thus only results in vague and grainy shapes and textures once the negatives are blown up.
It is very much about ambiguity and perception with photographic truthfulness itself under siege (e.g. Anthony Quinn 2017). Gestalt psychology tells something about shape recognition, and cognition relies a lot on context: an isolated and grainy shape can be anything – but Thomas was apparently right (and the murderer must have seen him take photographs… as did the park couple Thomas had in focus somewhere between himself and the murder victim)
The film also features some aspects of the fashion industry in general – and fashion photography in particular – touching upon voyeurism and gendered modes of representation in this respect.
Blowup has become an iconic movie about how photography relates to reality and to its own materiality as well as to interpretations of photographic content. In my view, it also suggests various degrees of victimization related to the photographic act, similar to what Susan Sontag hints at in her discussion of Blowup.3
Music certainly plays a role too in this 1966 London production! Herbie Hancock and The Yardbirds (or their music) perform as well – and not just for the mood. At some level, visuals, music, performance, poetry and politics may all come together in experience and commitment, as when Laurie Anderson speaks about reality and non-reality:
a giant blue painting can be much more about freedom than 1800 performance pieces about how free you should be or songs about that. It works with experience, not necessarily some kind of encoded message. Are you blown away by that sound? By that color? By that imagery? Just plain blown away? It doesn’t give you an agenda of what you should be doing.
1. Myth and Vision. On The Walk to Paradise Garden and the Photography of W. Eugene Smith. Aris, Lund 1987.
Questions about Susan Sontag’s On Photography – where the Blowup ending is not just seen as dissociated from the rest.