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Filmmakers have long been fascinated with photography’s ability to thematise the productive, typically resistant, interplay between the human and the nonhuman, where the ‘nonhuman’ can refer to both technology (including the material of the artist’s practice) and all the biological material that (apparently) exceeds the human subject (often collapsed under the term ‘nature’). The most intensely paradoxical example of this latter form of the nonhuman is the uncanny object/subject of the human corpse. The two films considered in this essay—one canonical and one contemporary—illustrate how film can stage photography as a nonhuman medium peculiarly able to represent the production and dissolution of the human subject, especially when it comes to rendering the figure of the corpse. Such ability, it will be shown, is largely unrelated to the (fictional) photographers’ subjective experiences, and where photography might seem a mode of empowerment, the two narratives under consideration illustrate that photography ultimately escapes the protagonist-photographers’ attempts to form a pragmatic or epistemic purchase on the world.

In Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), photography is not only a technology that produces (a sometimes morally ambiguous) agency through the interplay between the human and the nonhuman, but it is also explicitly linked with mortality, and the figure of the corpse, the actuality of which is both brought into play and into question via the camera. In Godland (Hlynur Pálmason, 2022), an earlier form of photographic technology is similarly presented as a source of uncanny insight into the human-nonhuman dynamic in terms of mortality and the figure of the corpse. Where the corpse remains ambiguous and potentially allegorical in Blowup, in Godland it is graphically literalised. In both cases photography functions as a modern practice (an interface between the human and the nonhuman) that evokes the multivalent traditions of the memento mori, with both films representing photography as a transformative medium inherently linked with the process of death and the uncanny tensions the medium elicits between the animate and the inanimate, and the past and present. This link between photography and death has long been made by theorists of photography, most famously Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Photography, as conceptualised through the highly individual modes of stylisation employed by each of the films under discussion, presents the uncanny figure of the corpse as essentially double, linked simultaneously to the immateriality of the symbol and the vibrant materiality (to evoke Jane Bennett1) of the real.

Blowup

In many ways, Michelangelo Antonioni’s oeuvre is an extended meditation on the relationship between human subjects and non-human objects and spaces, with the former often becoming lost among the latter. We see this in highly stylised representations of architecture and landscape, as found, for instance, in La Notte (1961) and Zabriskie Point (1970). Antonioni characteristically stages the uncanny encounter between the human and the nonhuman as one of transformation, mortality, and loss. Such themes are most intensely articulated through the representation of literal human absence, as seen most famously in L’Avventura (1960). 

While the protagonist in Blowup might appear to have more equanimity than his antecedents in Antonioni’s oeuvre, Thomas (as he is called in the film’s script) is nevertheless disillusioned with his successful career as a photographer. He also finds himself within a narrative concerned with mortality and disappearance. Photography, conceived as much in terms of its (nonhuman) materiality as its (human) sociality, is central to this narrative. It puts into play the film’s murder-mystery plot, when Thomas photographs two lovers in a park, discovering, upon processing his film, that he may have unknowingly ‘witnessed’ a murder.

Before this, we have viewed Thomas’s roles as both a documentary photographer (spending the night in a doss house) and a fashion photographer. In both cases the protagonist’s camera implies an ambiguous power. This power, and its misuse, is linked to a crisis of the protagonist’s ethical wellbeing (a link also made in Godland), a crisis that leads to an encounter with the figure of the corpse. In Blowup, given its milieu (‘swinging London’ in the 1960s), this crisis occurs in the dubious glow of commodified glamour. As Philippe Garner writes, ‘the camera, and particularly the latest 35mm models such as the Nikon F, fast and mobile, assumed a high symbolic status in the age of glamourised secret agents, spies and photographers—they became metaphorical tools of empowerment,’ with Blowup eloquently suggesting ‘the hollowness of such a view’.2 The hollowness of this view stems not only from Thomas’s apparent misuse of his power (treating his models, if not the world, with contempt), but also through his inability to remain focused on the ethico-legal problem he might have unearthed. As Seymour Chatman notes, while distraction is a common theme in Antonioni’s films, in Blowup

distraction is no longer simply a bad habit: it has become a way of life. Thomas never finishes anything: even at the two most critical moments in the film, when he tries to tell [his agent] Ron about his grisly discovery, he gets completely sidetracked, first by the sexual romp with the two teenagers, then by an intricate series of events in which distractions interrupt distractions.3

The irony of this is even more apparent when one considers photography as a practice concerned with attention.

By the end of the film, Thomas is distracted by a non-existent tennis match, literally detached from the ‘fast and mobile’ Nikon F that he had used to uncover the putative murder mystery. This uncanny tennis match, played by the mimes (or ragging students) who so conspicuously contrasted with the old men of the doss house at the film’s beginning, is famously ambiguous when it comes to resolving the problems—narratological and philosophical—that the film has engaged. Peter Brunette sees the film’s closing sequence as evidence of Thomas overcoming his narcissism through the discovery of ‘a more social sense of shared, participatory meaning’,4 though the moral valence of such a discovery is equivocal at best, given the evident unreality of the tennis match. Perhaps less contentiously, Brunette sees the film’s ending—in which Thomas disappears in a dissolve just before ‘The End’ appears on the screen—as playful and self-reflexive.5 However (as we discuss below), there is a darker, more elegiac element to the conclusion and its evident lack of resolution in the face of its apparently unambiguous end titles.

‘Resolution’, both as a photographic and a narratological term, is key to Blowup, since one of the film’s central features is the fact that the eponymous photographic blow-up does not resolve the film’s murder mystery. As David Campany writes in Photography and Cinema (2008), ‘Were we to survey all the moments in which cinema deploys photos (and they are countless), we would find most often they concern its complex status as evidence. Whether in mainstream or avant-garde, modern or postmodern film, the “proof” of photography as memory or history is nearly always at stake’.6

However, as almost all critics agree, the conventions of the murder mystery end up being largely beside the point in Blowup, even if the issues raised by its use of the genre are not. As noted, Thomas is profoundly distracted from determining the ‘proof’ of his photographic evidence. But even when he is most engaged with this evidentiary potential (in the famous montage during which Thomas arranges and examines the blow-ups), Thomas’s desires are undone by the resistance of the nonhuman matter of filmstock itself. Thomas’s rephotographing of enlarged details of his original ‘capture’ is doomed to failure, since the medium of the film emulsion will itself become the subject. The image will eventually become all ‘grain’. For Campany, this means that ‘For all its analytical, existential aspirations, Blowup does not get far past the obvious warning that while photographs are forceful as evidence, they need to be read carefully and corroborated by testimony’.7 In contrast, some see the film’s thematisation of photography as a medium (rather than a practice) as key to the film’s cultural and intellectual prestige. As Matilde Nardelli writes, ‘Perhaps it is even possible to see Blow-Up as less preoccupied with photography as the reproduction of reality than with the reality of photography as reproduction as such’.8

However, this choice between the (possibly facile) lesson of evidentiality and the ‘hard’ reification of mediality itself, ignores a third way of understanding how photography functions thematically in Blowup. Our contention is that Antonioni’s thematisation of photography—multiplex though it is—is an engagement with the nonhuman, understood most clearly through the uncanny bringing together of human and nonhuman materiality, a process ultimately concerned with the irresolvable figure of the corpse. This conspicuous figuration of the corpse (also seen in Godland) suggests a two-fold link between human subjects and nonhuman matter. The first link brings together photography and death (with photography being a medium commonly theorised as a medium associated with death and loss). This might seem conventional enough, but the second link complicates this uncanny relationship between human and nonhuman materiality by figuring both as inherently vibrant. Even the human corpse, the figure that seems to collapse the distinction between subject and object, is shown in Blowup and (especially) Godland to be disconcertingly dynamic (hence the corpse’s irresolvability).

Associated with the concept of resolution is the issue of intent, as seen in the speech by Bill, Thomas’s artist neighbour, whose own abstract artwork has an attenuated relationship with intentionality and resolution. Discussing his work in front of a painting on display, he states that

They don’t mean anything when I do them; just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto, like that…quite like that leg. Then it sorts itself out, and adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.9

The genre of detective fiction invests heavily in intent (the motive for murder) and resolution (the solving of the mystery). It is notable, then, that Patricia, Bill’s wife, when looking at one of Thomas’s blown-up photographs (possible evidence of a crime), says that ‘It looks like one of Bill’s paintings.’ This thematisation of detection is also suggested when we see Thomas yielding, like Sherlock Holmes, a large magnifying glass (an optical cousin of the camera).

As this image suggests, intentionality is central to issues of looking and being looked at. This dynamic, as Blowup makes clear, is as much as about power as it is about meaning. The power to see without being seen is a god-like one, and it is central to the film’s engagement with the uncanny, particularly since it engages the surprisingly mobile tension between visibility and invisibility. Thomas begins the film as ‘invisible’, staying the night in a doss house, taking photographs of destitute men for his photobook, presumably ‘invisible’ in the sense of not being recognised for who, or what, he is. (In this respect, he calls to mind Sherlock Holmes working in disguise in places of ill repute, such as opium dens.) This ‘unseen’ Thomas is evoked again in the studio, when he tells his models, and assistant, to close their eyes, allowing him to duck off next door, prefiguring Thomas’s ultimate disappearance at the film’s conclusion. However, the putative crisis of the film—the mystery of what happens in the park—is inaugurated precisely because Thomas cannot operate as if he was invisible. Photographing the lovers in a park, Thomas takes cover behind a fence, then a series of trees, until, as he is leaving, he is approached by a flustered woman who demands him to stop. ‘Give me those pictures; you can’t photograph people like that,’ she says, and Thomas counters with ‘Who says I can’t? I’m only doing my job.’ When it becomes apparent that Thomas will not hand over his film, the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), says ‘we haven’t met; you’ve never seen me,’ trying to reverse the dynamic of seeing and not seeing that Thomas seeks to control with his camera. Jane runs off, stopping at something beneath a tree (a supine body?), until she is off-camera, which is to say, invisible.

The material nature of this putative body is central to Blowup. Going back to the park at night, without his camera, Thomas sees the corpse, even apparently touching it. Touch, rather than sight, if only briefly, seems to be the real source of illumination. As David Alan Mellor notes, like his apostolic namesake (‘Doubting’ Thomas), the photographer ‘seeks indexical evidence rather than only ocular evidence’.10 But even this material evidence remains indefinite, since, after his distracting night of revelry, Thomas returns to the park to find no body. This disappearance (as well as Jane’s) prefigures Thomas’s own disappearance at the end of the film. As all of this suggests, the thematisation of photography in Blowup ultimately evokes the figure of memento mori (something we will also see present in Godland).

In particular, the importance of parks and their grassy spaces calls to mind the Biblical assertion that ‘All flesh is grass’ (Isaiah 40:6).11 Blowup conspicuously links flesh and grass in the opening credit sequence, during which a high shot of grass is the ‘ground’ for the titles, which act as window onto the carnal figure of a dancing fashion model. The closing titles echo this, with a similar, if not the same shot of grass acting as a ground (with the titles now in funereal black). Between opening and closing titles, the link between flesh—whether the masculine, withered, and hidden flesh of the men in the doss house, or the feminine, healthy, and displayed flesh of the fashion models—and grass (as well as wind, another elegiac motif) is conspicuous. The importance of the film’s attention to literal grass is made clear in David Forgac’s account of the film’s last sequences. As Forgac notes, the body of the murdered victim disappears

leaving only grass. Nearly all [Thomas’s] photographic evidence was removed too, that same night, when his studio was ransacked. Instead of offering a solution to the mystery, the film goes somewhere else: toward a mimed game of tennis in the park, with the camera following an invisible ball but showing only grass; the photographer joining in the mime; and a final shot where the photographer himself, filmed from a high crane, dissolves away and again we see only grass.12 (our emphasis)

This conjunction of grass and disappearance/invisibility evokes, via Isaiah’s apothegm, literal death. 

One of the key ironies of Blowup is that Thomas (for all his social and financial power) is potentially, and unknowingly, photographing himself when he photographs the (alive/dead) man in the park. The dissolve at the film’s end, where Thomas disappears but the grass remains, is reminiscent of early film’s interest in special effects13—magical disappearance and transformation—and can be read as dealing with time as much as space. Thomas, so absorbed by both material things and material images of those things, has been heedless of his fate (to disappear), which is prefigured—via the technology of his camera—in his uncanny encounter with the corpse in the park. As Laura Rascaroli writes, in her analysis of Blowup as a meditation on objects (and bodies as objects),

By framing together the body of the photographer and his dead alter-ego, his double [the nameless corpse], Antonioni shows us the object in its value as inhuman copy of the subject, in the encounter with which the subject experiences the fascination of the horror, of the non-human, and runs the risk of dissolution, with all the necessary references to Kristeva.14 And yet, in a counter-Kristevan reading, it is precisely the encounter with the other-than-oneself that occasions for the photographer his most lucid, if not only, moment of self-awareness in the film. The presence of the corpse implies the absence of the human; by touching it, the protagonist, a man full of certainties on the self, recognises that he is object among the objects…15

The self-awareness is indeed momentary. Like the protagonist in Godland, Thomas’s encounter with objects and bodies via the camera (an extension of both the eye and the hand), and the nonhuman medium of photography more generally, leads to dissolution, rather than insight. The memento mori of photography ultimately turns its educative force from the fictional protagonist to the actual audience.

Godland

An equally compelling illustration of the uncanny tension between the ‘human’ and the ‘non-human’ inherent within photography is Godland. A late nineteenth-century historical drama, Godland focusses on Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a young Danish priest who, instructed by his bishop, is sent to a remote part of Iceland to assist in the construction of a new Christian community. Travelling with a small crew, including his hostile Icelandic guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), and his photographic paraphernalia, Lucas’s journey is met with desolation, as his sanity begins to whither due to both the unrelenting climate and personal crises. Tumultuously crossing both ocean and land, Lucas’s physical and mental anguish is amplified by his inability to utilise photography to conquer reality, the young priest endeavoring to capture the Icelandic people with his technology.

The prevalence of photography within the narrative is announced during the opening credits, which state that the film was allegedly inspired by seven wet-plate photographs, supposedly the first photographs of Iceland’s south-east coast. Stylistically, the film frequently evokes still photograph; Pálmason utilises a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (the aspect ratio used for 35mm films in the silent era, which is close to the 5:4 ratio of Lucas’s large-format camera) and a temporal cadence which, often through dramatic long-takes and panning shots, cultivates a sense of photographic stillness. In placing Godland in dialogue with Blowup, the two films offer valuable insight into an already rich discourse surrounding the filmic-photographic affinity, whilst further illuminating, through the central figure of the human corpse, the uncanny nature of the human-nonhuman encounter. Godland, like Blowup, thematises photography as a machinery for the erosion of the self—both in moral and literal senses. Throughout both films, the presence of the camera alone seems to inaugurate a fall into moral transgression; the pursuit of the still image to master actuality becomes intimately interwoven with the undoing of ethical wellbeing.

Godland (again, like Blowup) renders photography as an artistic practice that evokes both stasis and movement, unleashing an uncanny tension that both dissolves and reinforces the human-nonhuman binary. Contradicting the pace of the external world, the still image renders time frozen, diverting its focus to what once was and what will be no longer; a space where movement and stasis collide, and where being and non-being form one unified uncanny phenomenon. Writing on the opposing natures of film and photography, Laura Mulvey asserts that ‘[t]he still photographic represents an unattached instant, unequivocally grounded in its indexical relation to the moment of registration’, while ‘[t]he moving image, on the contrary, cannot escape duration’.16 Godland and Blowup complicate this relation, with both films emphasizing a more ambiguous and uncanny space of indexicality. Within the former, this liminality is emphasised by Lucas’s camera, with its six-second exposure time. Through this technological process, the photograph’s subjects appear frozen in time, cultivating, momentarily, an allusive inbetweeness where the photographic medium immaterialises the living being into something static and, ultimately, devoid of life. 

Emphasising that stillness is required to capture his photographic image, Lucas instructs his crew to remain ‘as if you’re dead’, an association also suggested in the corpse-like pallor that is given by the white makeup Lucas applies to his subjects’ faces. This link between photography and death, as already noted, is a long-standing one. Russell JA Kilbourn, summarising the dominant theory of the visual image since the mid-twentieth century, succinctly notes of the photograph that it is ‘always a representation of something past, over and done…photography, in its indexicality, is “death”’.17 Susan Sontag, consistent with Kilbourn’s summary, states that all photographs ‘are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’.18 Blowup, as we have seen, prefigured this conceptualisation of the photograph as memento mori. But where Antonioni portrays this notion through the literal representation of flesh and grass, Pálmason articulates it through the sublime ruthlessness of both the Icelandic landscape and Lucas’s fate.

For instance, a series of shots of a volcanic eruption roughly halfway through the narrative offer further understanding of the film’s interest in the human-nonhuman dyad, with the sharp diegetic sound and arresting visuals presenting a visceral portrait of the nonhuman forces that both thwart Lucas’s journey and seemingly frustrate his morality. Likewise, in one of the film’s climactic sequences, in which Lucas murders Ragnar after the latter admits to killing Lucas’s horse, Pálmason illuminates the internal workings of a protagonist whose physical and internal despair has resulted in a violent relationship with his external world that inevitably leads to his death, an event that, as we will see, literalises the symbolic relationship between flesh and grass. 

As in Blowup, the human-nonhuman relationship intrinsic to photography and its chemical processes—that is, the attempt to fix a moment in time through the impression of light upon (in this case) a photographic glass plate—is further intensified via the protagonist’s inability to master reality. Central to Lucas’s moral undoing is the inability to exert control over his environment, whether that is capturing the perfect image, speaking Icelandic, or riding his horse. As Richard Johnstone writes in his review of Godland, ‘[p]hotography, which tantalizes with its apparent promise of facilitating his connection with others, ultimately fails Lucas’,19 with the medium denying the perfect image of his subjects and the external world. For Lucas, like Thomas, photography is unable to function as a machinery for reconciliation. This condition is illustrated when Lucas endeavors to take a photograph of his travelling crew, though even the mere movement of Ragnar infuriates the young priest, whose desired image can no longer be actualised. Ragnar’s movement, which would be captured as a ghost-like blur within the still frame, can be considered as a prefiguration—and literalisation—of not only the character’s later death, but, more importantly, the film’s preoccupation with the uncanny nature of the photographic medium as occupied by both human and nonhuman forces, forces unified through death. In response to the lack of compliance from his subjects and the medium’s inability to mediate reality in the desired way, Lucas eventually responds by killing Ragnar and destroying the photographic equipment—effectively ending his already-ambivalent relationship with those around him (a relationship put into place by the implicitly colonial actions of the church that Lucas represents).

Within this context of power, Godland does not merely thematise the collision between the animate and the inanimate within the cinematic-photographic affinity, but also explores the immediate dialogue between human and nonhuman forces—with the latter, notably, failing to be delegated as subservient to the former. Importantly, as observed within his photographic endeavors, Lucas is unable to establish a unity between his medium and desired subjects. This destabilised hierarchy between the human and nonhuman is further literalised by the attention that the cinematography (by Maria von Hausswolff) gives to the landscape, with the sublime qualities of the natural world reinforcing the tension between the human and the nonhuman. Through Lucas’s inability to master the natural world (his Icelandic helpers are bemused by his insistence on walking to his destination, rather than sailing there), Godland is haunted by the perpetual threat of mortality, and the shadow it casts over human agency. The figure of the memento mori is pervasive, with the protagonist’s eventual fate accentuating the sentiment that death, even amongst the lively moments of the present and the hopeful optimism of the future, is ever-present. Writing on the complex dialectic between the still and moving image, Mulvey asserts that ‘as a trace of the past that persists into present, and one in which, in the case of the cinema, appears to animate the inanimate human body, the photographic index reaches out towards the uncanny as an effect of confusion between living and dead’.20 Through this uncanny index as highlighted by Mulvey, both Godland and Blowup show how photography functions metonymically with regard to the abstract nature of their respective social milieux, with modernity—as witnessed within its own form throughout both films—demonstrating a particular collision between human and nonhuman forces.

However, like Blowup, Godland is ultimately concerned with modernity’s apparent limit: mortality. Moments before Carl (Jacob Lohmann), a Danish patriarch from the community that Lucas enters, kills Lucas as rough justice for murdering Ragnar, he tells the protagonist that ‘I’m convinced that we are all very small and fleeting’, gesturing towards the frailty of the human amid the irreducible forces of the nonhuman. Appearing to be a final sigh of human existence, Lucas clings to Carl, cultivating another momentary—and literal—clash between the binaries of life and death and movement and stasis. Within the succeeding shots, Pálmason directs the camera towards the corpse of Lucas’s horse, with an intricately crafted series of jump-cuts spanning over a considerable period. Highlighting the passing of time against which the landscape undergoes seasonal change (seemingly moving through all climatic conditions), the nature of the jump-cuts appears to stylistically—and technically—resemble that of a time-lapse. Where the corpse remains unattended to as it gradually withers into the ground on which it lies, Pálmason’s jump-cuts appear to unify the competing forces of the human and non-human within the photographic medium. Within this, the succession of cuts—and the pace at which the film passes between environmental conditions—seemingly collapses the distinction between still and moving photography, thereby further illuminating the complex relationship shared between photography and film. Death is thus rendered as a dynamic process, with the nature of the jump-cuts emphasizing how the passage between life and death is paradoxically a dynamic action, rather than a completely lifeless one. Just as mortality is played out on the figure of (literal) grass in Blowup, here this process occurs on grass-like tundra, again evoking the central notion of how all flesh is grass. Mirroring Antonioni’s fascination with the shift—or, transference—between presence and absence, the series of jump-cuts in Godland effectively materialises this indexical and uncanny space between life and death, and stasis and movement, with Pálmason thus thematizing a metonymic relationship between the horse’s corpse and that of Lucas’s, which is now bones, and briefly mourned over by Carl’s younger daughter, Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). Both corpses dynamically and graphically whither into the void of the unknown.

For a passing moment, sharp diegetic sound—comparable to that of the soughing wind within Blowup—dominates a frame which discloses only what appears to be the grey sky, as Pálmason attempts to capture existence beyond the human. The sharp diegetic sound, starkly opposing the silent soundscape of preceding and succeeding frames, sonically heightens the sense that the non-human, akin to mortality, cannot be dispersed. Within the succession of these frames, once again replicating that of a moment frozen in time, mortality and being become one, as the withering forces of human agency are inextricably linked, and complicated by, the pervasive processes of the nonhuman forces—a notion that can be considered as the literalisation of both Lucas’s and Thomas’s fate. To draw on Mulvey once more:

For human and all organic life, time marks the movement along a path to death, that is, to the stillness that represents the transformation of the animate into the inanimate. In cinema, the blending of movement and stillness touches on this point of uncertainty so that, buried in the cinema’s materiality, lies a reminder of the difficult of understanding passing time, and ultimately, of understanding death.21

Where both films use film and photography to thematise how the ‘nonhuman human’ object of the corpse becomes vibrantly material, Godland and Blowup likewise evoke the uncanny interplay between presence and absence, where the collision of two phenomena engenders a space of ambiguity and uncertainty. Just as multiple characters appear to disappear in Blowup, Godland likewise evokes the uncanny interplay between presence and absence. The familiarity of the self, the presence of human agency, has become fractured by a permeating sense of the void. Through this obstruction, Godland thematises the potentially harrowing reality of what one must inevitably face when one’s mortality is made present. What phenomena occupies the liminal space between life and death? This indexical and uncanny space that Pálmason explores is further complicated through the vibrant nature of mortality, with the corpse sequence emphasizing how even death, something typically associated with stillness, can be paradoxically imbued with vitality. Furthering this, within the various jump-cuts, the series of dominant absent spaces within the natural world reinforce how photography—when placed in dialogue with film—provides valuable insight into the ever-changing dynamics between the human and nonhuman, with the uncanny relationship between the two thus shaping the foundations of a reality that is inherently polyvalent and jagged; simultaneously, and paradoxically, both appearing in motion and at a complete standstill.

Conclusion

Where the photograph appears to ‘fix’ the human moment, photography as a medium—as these two films uncannily illustrate—turns out to be radically unstable, moving between material and discursive realities in complex, unpredictable ways. In Blowup and Godland such realities are associated with the matrix of modernity, power, and crime. But both films ultimately move beyond these realms to a more fundamental feature of the nonhuman that photography, at least as represented in film, can engage: the way in which the ‘nonhuman human’ object of the corpse can (or cannot) be integrated into human understanding via photography. Each film focuses on this potential in photography in both traditional and revisionary ways. Each evokes the photograph as the paradigmatic instance of the modern memento mori, the reminder of loss and death that photography effects upon both the photographer and photographic subject. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, famously describes photographers as ‘agents of death’, claiming that ‘…Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death’.22 But Barthes arrives at these points via the mysteriousness of photography’s apparently unambiguous indexical nature. Faced with a photograph of himself that he cannot remember being taken causes in Barthes a crisis: ‘This distortion between certainty and oblivion gave me a kind of vertigo, something of a “detective” anguish (the theme of Blow-Up was not far off)’.23

Concerned in their different ways with ‘certainty and oblivion’, both Blowup and Godland revise the elegiac force of photography to illustrate how the corpse itself is a human/nonhuman object/subject that has its own symbolic and actual materiality, a materiality that can be seen as dynamic, even vibrant, as observed through the uncanny and ambiguous representations that photography (and film) can bring into being.

Endnotes

  1. See, for instance, Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). Bennett writes that when talking about the ‘vitality of (nonhuman) bodies’ she means ‘the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own’ (p. viii).
  2. Philippe Garner, ‘Fleeting Images: Photographers, Models and the Media—London, 1966’, Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Philippe Garner & David Alan Mellor (Göttingen: Steidl, 2010), p. 118.
  3. Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 140.
  4. Peter Brunette, The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 111.
  5. Brunette, p. 118.
  6. David Campany, Photography and Cinema (London: Reaktion, 2008), p. 95.
  7. Campany, p. 118.
  8. Matilde Nardelli, Antonioni and the Aesthetics of Impurity: Remaking the Image in the 1960s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), p. 135.
  9. Blowup, 1966 (Warner Home Video, 2004).
  10. David Alan Mellor, ‘Fragments of an Unknowable Whole: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Incorporation of Contemporary Visualities—London, 1966’, Antonioni’s Blow-Up, p. 131.
  11. An allusion perceived by at least one other critic. See Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘The Emblematic Texture of Antonioni’s Blow-Up’, Film Criticism 36.1 (2011), p. 71.
  12. David Forgacs, ‘Blow-Up: In the Details’, March 28 2017, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4478-blow-up-in-the-details
  13. The mimes’ (silent) tennis match, with its exaggerated mode of acting and facial makeup, can also be seen as an evocation of early cinema.
  14. The reference is to Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1982), in which abjection refers to those forms of matter rejected by the human subject. In this context, the abject thing par excellence is the corpse.
  15. Laura Rascaroli, ‘Modernity, Put Into Form: Blow-Up, Objectuality, 1960s Antonioni’, Antonioni: Centenary Essays, Laura Rascaroli & John David Rhodes (eds) (London: British Film Institute, 2011), p. 77.
  16. Laura Mulvey Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006), p. 13.
  17. Russell JA Kilbourn Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Representation of Memory from the Art Film to Transnational Cinema (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 29.
  18. Susan Sontag On Photography (1977, New York: Penguin Random House, 2009), p. 15.
  19. Richard Johnstone, ‘In the Frame’, Inside Story 23 August 2023. https://insidestory.org.au/in-the-frame-godland/
  20. Mulvey, p. 31.
  21. Mulvey, pp. 31-32.
  22. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans Richard Howard (1981, New York: Hill & Wang, 2010), p. 92.
  23. Barthes, p. 85.