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Hollywood Icon: Audrey Hepburn and the Photography of Bob Willoughby

Audrey Hepburn, who was at the peak of her fame in the 1950s and ‘60s, is remembered for movies as diverse as Roman Holiday, Sabrina, The Nun’s Tale, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. She became not only a world-celebrated actress but also a style icon, her images reproduced thousands of times. 

Added to the International Best Dressed List in 1961, Hepburn was associated with a minimalistic style, usually wearing clothes with simple silhouettes which emphasized her slim figure, monochromatic colors, and occasional statement accessories. 

In the late 1950s, she popularised plain black leggings, and academic Rachel Moseley describes the combination of “slim black trousers, flat ballet-style pumps and a fine black jersey” as one of her signatures looks alongside little black dresses, a new style at a time when women still wore skirts and heels more often than trousers and flats.

Despite being admired for her beauty, Hepburn never considered herself attractive, stating in a 1959 interview that “you can even say that I hated myself at certain periods. I was too fat, or maybe too tall, or maybe just plain too ugly… you can say my definiteness stems from underlying feelings of insecurity and inferiority. I couldn’t conquer these feelings by acting indecisive. I found the only way to get the better of them was by adopting a forceful, concentrated drive.” 

In 1989, she said “my look is attainable … Women can look like Audrey Hepburn by flipping out their hair, buying the large glasses and the little sleeveless dresses.”

Style Icon

Hepburn’s influence as a style icon continues decades after her death in 1993. In 2004, she was named the “most beautiful woman of all time” and “most beautiful woman of the 20th century” in polls by Evian and QVC. Her film costumes fetch large sums of money in auctions, with one of the “little black dresses” designed by Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany’s being sold by Christie’s for a record sum of £467,200 in 2006.

Hepburn was in particular associated with French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, who was first hired to design her on-screen wardrobe for her second Hollywood film, Sabrina. In My Fair Lady, she was sumptuously costumed by Cecil Beaton. 

Audrey Hepburn as a style icon in My Fair Lady.

The American Film Institute named Hepburn third among the Greatest Female Stars of all Time, and she is one of the few performers to have won Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards, as well as a record three BAFTA awards for Best British Actress in a Leading Role. 

In her later years, she devoted herself to ambassadorial work for UNICEF and to the occasional project such as the critically acclaimed documentary Gardens of the World. 

Bob Willoughby’s Candid Audrey Hepburn Photographs

As we celebrate the 90th anniversary of her birth, F11 Foto Museum of Hong Kong has secured an outstanding selection of some of photographer Bob Willoughby’s most memorable photos of Audrey.

Above: The exhibition Audrey by Bob Willoughby in the restored 1930s art deco building of the F11 Foto Museum in Hong Kong

The 90 photographs—one for each year since Audrey’s birth—have been carefully curated by Douglas So, Founder, and Director of F11 Foto Museum, with the help of Bob’s son, Christopher. They cover the 1950s and ‘60s period when she was at the peak of her fame. 

The photographs include stills from the sets of Green Mansions, The Children’s Hour, Paris When It Sizzles, My Fair Lady and Two For The Road,  and among them, rare candid shots captured behind the scenes which highlight her roles as an actress, style icon and mother.

Exhibited in Over 50 Countries

Bob Willoughby was the first photographer retained by a Hollywood studio to take on-set promotional stills for sale to magazines. He met Audrey when Paramount Studios signed her to a contract in 1953, following the acclaim generated by her first starring role in Roman Holiday. Over the next few years, they became close family friends, giving Bob the chance to capture hundreds of informal candid shots of Audrey in both her public and private lives—a unique pictorial record of this timeless star’s career.

Bob’s work has been exhibited in more than 50 countries and is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Bibliotheque National in Paris, among others.

Audrey Hepburn. Photograph by Bob Willoughby.

The exhibition features images of Audrey in her role as flower-girl Eliza in My Fair Lady, for which she had to be in for makeup at 6:30 or 7 a.m. each morning to be ‘made-down’.

Also featured are images of Audrey with her pets including Famous and Assam, her Yorkshire Terriers who shared a place with her on many magazine covers.

For Green Mansions, Willoughby shot Hepburn in the gorgeous and exotic Venezuelan jungle, while Audrey’s son Sean and Bob’s son Christopher celebrated their first birthdays.

Audrey Hepburn. Photograph by Bob Willoughby.

Bob Willoughby’s Innovations

Willoughby’s on-set photographs show actors and directors both working and relaxing, forceful and vulnerable, beautiful in their costumes and make-up and exhausted after long hours on set. He was able to capture these images because they felt he was on their side and not looking to exploit them. Audrey’s candid shots captured by this trusted friend behind the scenes is the best proof of this faith.

Sydney Pollack said in the introduction to Willoughby’s autobiography: “Sometimes a filmmaker gets a look at a photograph taken on his own set and sees the ‘soul’ of his film in one still photograph. It’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me in 1969, the first time I looked at the work of Bob Willoughby during the filming of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

Willoughby was responsible for a number of technical innovations, including a silent blimp for 35mm still cameras, which became common on film sets. He was the only photographer working on films at the time to use radio-controlled cameras, allowing him unprecedented coverage in otherwise impossible situations, and he had special brackets built to hold his still cameras on or over the Panavision cameras.

About F11 Foto Museum

The F11 Foto Museum occupies a fully-restored three-story building from the 1930s. While retaining many of the building’s Art Deco architectural features, the restoration has blended in various elements of photography. While the ground and first floors of F11 are dedicated to photography exhibitions, the second floor showcases rare camera equipment. The Museum is also home to over 1,500 photography books, including many rare signed editions and maquettes, and the rooftop is a green oasis in the midst of tall buildings.

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