Forty-five years ago, English model Jill Kennington agreed to appear in an art-house film—one that would memorably capture the energy of London’s 1960s fashion and art scenes. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, Blow-Up—his first English-language film—was a sensation, and earned the Italian modernist Oscar nominations for directing and writing. Today, Kennington discusses her participation in Blow-Up and the real-world London atmosphere it depicted with Philippe Garner, international head of 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie’s. With David Alan Mellor, Garner has co-written a book that analyzes and contextualizes the film: Antonioni’s Blow-Up. (Steidl).
Philippe Garner: Jill, your role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up created an indelible image that has become emblematic of the London scene in the 60s. How did it happen that you got cast for the film?
Jill Kennington: I remember excited whispers going round London: “Antonioni is going to make a movie here!” He was very well known to me for his beautiful and often strange films, so I was intrigued, but it took a while to understand that he was interested in the London 60s scene—in particular the world of fashion photographers and models. I then often saw him sort of skulking around, not wanting to be noticed, alone, just taking it all in, both in the trendy discotheques, watching, and in my favorite Italian restaurant, San Lorenzo. One day he turned up on a shoot I was doing for Queen magazine at David Montgomery’s studio. I remember there were two other girls; we were introduced, told he was just going to watch and to ignore him. This was very easy, as he just faded away to a gray figure alone at the back. I was a bit disappointed that the shoot was quite abstract and graphic, not typically my type of work. Of course, only when the filming started, with five girls, could I see how that shoot had given him ideas and inspiration.
PG: Tell me more about the shoot for Queen, and the importance of that magazine, and David Montgomery’s status in the business. He was an American in London, wasn’t he?
JK: Philippe, you would have loved Queen magazine. I did some great spreads with Helmut Newton, Jeanloup Sieff, Peter Beard, John Cowan, and David Montgomery. David arrived from New York in, at a guess, 1964, and he was very, very good. He was laid-back, with his drawl and unhurried way. He had a big studio in Edith Grove, all black and cool music playing—a good working atmosphere. The fashion editor Clare Rendlesham had such a way with clothes, and she had a great instinct about photographers. Many people thought she was a nightmare, but all the shoots I did with her were terrific. David did a spread with me called “The Rossetti Look,” which was Rendlesham’s idea, and the pictures are favorites of mine. The thing about Queen was that they really gave people a chance to be creative, and they were bold and confident enough to take risks. They were young and refreshing—the art department and the directors had battles on Monday mornings that became legendary. The creative team sure had to fight to keep the good spreads in. This was essential, as they recognized the pulse of what was happening in London. Maybe it was no accident that Antonioni turned up at Montgomery’s studio, rather than in the Vogue studio.
PG: You mentioned John Cowan. His studio became a principal set for Blow-Up. You had a close working and personal relationship with him. Can you tell me about his style of working? Was it anything like that of the photographer in the film?
JK: I had a close working relationship with John Cowan. Somehow it was always exciting. I felt from the start that I could be myself, plus whatever ingredient was needed for the shoot. Amazingly, our work has become iconic and curiously hasn’t dated. John was usually clad in stone-colored denim, with desert boots. All the years I worked with him, he never tripped or fell, though he clambered anywhere, including onto his Land Rover roof, to achieve a great angle. Luckily, I was born a mountain goat, and many photographic adventures involved jumping or hanging off buildings.
The David Hemmings–and-Veruschka scene for Blow-Up was pure Cowan. Antonioni must have seen him working—I never saw anyone else take pictures quite that way. The shooting on the floor downwards, completely fluid, unhindered by tripods, etc., was typical Cowan.
PG: Fascinating. So there clearly were details that Antonioni picked up from John Cowan to add authenticity to the character. Tell me about Veruschka.
JK: Veruschka was the only person who could have done that scene like that. I imagine that she may have been asked to end up on the floor, but who knows; it was a happening and brilliant. I had met Veruschka a few years before in New York and had seen her work. Then one day, about a year before Blow-Up, I was working for Queen magazine with, coincidentally, David Montgomery. Clare Rendlesham was the fashion editor, and she whispered to me that she wanted to talk to me about something after we had finished the shoot. We were in the dressing room, with all the makeup lights on round the mirrors. Clare had a glint in her eye, and I thought, Something’s exciting here. Later she said that she was trying to arrange a trip to Africa, with Peter Beard, who I had also met in New York, and who had asked for me and, hopefully, Veruschka. I was thrilled to be asked and agreed instantly. I had a few anxieties about not being six feet tall, and wondered if I would be able to carry off any photographs with her. [But] the trip was fantastic.
PG: So, by early 1966, when filming started, you were at the top, in demand from the very best photographers and magazines. You were one of the most successful models in the business. How did you get started as a model?
JK: At the age of 18, I just knew I had to get to London. After school—domestic-science college, hotel-management training—I needed to find my own path. I had such a free upbringing, a sort of outward-bound childhood. I was fearless, and I begged my parents to let me go and stay with my aunt, Mary, who was a buyer for Harrods. I got a job at Harrods over the Christmas period. It was a huge contrast from life at home in Lincolnshire, and there was such a buzz in the air. I used to go and check out Mary Quant’s Bazaar, and I had never seen anything like it—great clothes for young people. I was at a birthday party at the Savoy Hotel one day, when Michael Whittaker introduced himself, saying that he was a top model agent and that I must go and see him. I took my mother to meet him at the agency in Brook Street, and he charmed her into agreeing. Together, we persuaded my father.
I remember that Michael had a small school that taught girls how to walk, and the basics of makeup. I think I only did two days, and was then asked to go and see Norman Hartnell. Here was the Queen’s dressmaker, who created very classic, sophisticated clothes. He was about to do a big tour of the British Isles, in all the major cities, putting on shows. He had his house models and a few others, but thought it would be a good idea to have me as the young one. I remember he said, “Darling, you are going to be my mascot.” He made a big fuss of me, and on tour, I seemed to be the one that the local press wanted for their photographs. I was also the bride, who traditionally closed the show. I think it stirred some jealousy among the others.
I definitely remember feeling as if that wasn’t really me; I felt I was pretending. I had met John Cowan the first day at Michael Whittaker’s and had done some test shots before the tour. It felt so natural being photographed. The tour lasted about a month, ending with a hip party given by Lord Bath in the caves on his estate. It was called “The Cave Rave,” and I, as the mascot, was in a tiny suede dress, appropriate for a sexy cavewoman.
PG: In Blow-Up, one can see a number of his pictures of you in the studio, notably very big prints—I should perhaps say “blowups”—including one on location in London from the series of you posed on major London monuments for Queen. These are very different pictures from the film’s highly stylized fashion shoot.
JK: What you see on the walls of John’s studio, pictures that featured in Blow-Up, were typical Kennington/Cowan images. It was very weird, to say the least, when I discovered what I was being asked to do in Blow-Up. I remember thinking that I shouldn’t do it, that I was being unfair to myself, feeling as if I was to be an under-used, bit-part player. The funny thing is that I then turned the thoughts around and told myself, This is Antonioni, it is his vision, and the whole thing is a bit of a mystery. Now that the film is such a cult classic, ever more so, I am really glad that I did it. We were pieces in an artist’s jigsaw.
The scenes that I was in were, as you say, highly stylized. I actually really like that now. I can see that Antonioni needed some stillness; it slows things down. The fact that the five girls are graphically positioned, in our bold clothes and makeup, looks very good. At the time, I hated the fact that we were so doll-like, and the fact that we had to play it very dumb did not appeal to me. I often felt that there was a lot to defend—O.K., some models may be dumb, but I am not one of them! Here I was doing precisely this, playing a vacuous creature. In real life, I never experienced anything other than respect and enthusiasm. This was a movie, and I was playing a part. The film created its own reality, and by the end, do we really know what it is about? It plays with our psyche. I think Antonioni loved to play with illusion and to leave us questioning.
PG: It is interesting to realize that for so many of us the film—a work of fiction—came to define the realities of that world. How true did you consider David Hemmings’s interpretation of the role of the photographer?
JK: I thought David Hemmings was terrific. He was physically slight, more like David Bailey, but the way he worked in the film had the charisma of John Cowan. I don’t know what sort of research, if any, he did, but he just nailed the role. He used to hang out with us girls over in the dressing room, where we also did hair and makeup. This was a good move, as he got to know us and we all felt at ease with him. He was so perfectly cast, an appealing bundle of energy, and of course he was very young. For the tableau, my bold blue-and-white top and cap looked great, but I couldn’t move—it was designed for effect. I was on the poster for the film in France, in a collage of myself and the infamous image of David and Veruschka.
PG: Despite certain initial misgivings, the movie seems to have been a very interesting chapter in your professional life.
JK: I am happy that I did the role in Blow-Up. Career-wise, it was different and exciting to be part of the film. Now, in hindsight, I am even more pleased. It is fun that so many young people have seen it and really appreciate it—curiously, and significantly, it is unique in that it took a maestro from another country to realize that a slice of 60s London was worth recording, even though his interpretation took on the character of a mystery, a fantasy, or an illusion. Sometimes people ask me what Blow-Up was about. I haven’t a clue! But it is unforgettable.