Exhibition Review: Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London celebrates the life of one of the worlds most photographed and iconic faces, Audrey Hepburn. Boasting more than 70 images which defined Hepburn’s career as well as rare prints from iconic photographers of the twentieth century, such as Irving Penn and Richard Averdon, it also shows personal images lent by her sons Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Luca Dotti. The exhibition pays homage to all aspects of Audrey Hepburn’s life from her acting career and iconic fashion shoots all the way through to her personal life away from the spotlight which is documented in the form of family albums.

When walking into the exhibition I was immediately confronted with how popular it was, the small and intimate space of the exhibition was packed with people even in a late afternoon viewing. To me this emphasised just how eager people of all ages were to see first hand the images and artefacts which symbolised Hepburn’s career. Decades after her death she is still seen as a timeless icon who is adored by so many.

Set out in chronological order, the exhibition introduces us to Audrey’s early years in the Netherlands and London. It begins with personal family photographs and artefacts from her ballet days such as shoes and a theatre program from her first performance in the London West End. These deeply personal images captured by family members and unknown photographer’s allowed the viewer to see a relatively undocumented side of Hepburn, so much so she was almost unrecognisable. Accompanying each image is a brief description of the image and the context behind it. The use of text within the exhibition was very effective yet not overpowering. It struck the balance just right in providing the viewer with just enough information to understand the image yet allowing them to interpret the image in their own way. Often at photographic exhibitions I find there is either too much text or too little and this is one of the reasons why this particular exhibition worked very well.

Following on from her younger years the exhibition then moved on to show her early fashion shoots and film stills from the pinnacle of her international stardom. These images make up the main part of the exhibition and when moving through the exhibition you get a feeling of progress and the fame Hepburn has achieved in only a short period of time. Fashion portraits by well known photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Norman Parkinson capture the hight of Hepburn’s fame from the 1950’s-1960’s. Yet images by Bob Willoughby, Mark Shaw and Irving Penn captured Hepburn in a more candid and relax manor. Their iconic photography changed the way people perceived Hepburn, yet her timeless style still shines through these images. Pictured in more casual clothes and not in glamorous hollywood dresses and costumes, Hepburn’s style still remains classic. This is one of the main themes I noticed while looking around the exhibition, it was also celebration of her style.

In addition to this, one thing which I found particularly interesting about these selection of images was how differently the photographers chose to compose, frame and treat their subject, meaning each image of Hepburn is unique in its own way. In turn this created a new persona for Hepburn. For example Irving Penn’s image taken in 1951 shows a new style of portraiture which at the time would of been considered daring and obscure. The image is tightly cropped and against a neutral makeshift background. This close up shot of Hepburn shows an intense character study by Penn and the happy expression on her face gives us a truthful portrayal of her character. Penn allows the subject’s nature to show through by accentuating an expression or pose; the neutrality of the background left Hepburn nowhere to hide. In Penn’s images he strips away all the fuss that photographing well known figures tends to elicit and what we are left with is only the simplistic and truthful portrait of the subject. The main focus is on her facial features and as a viewer we are not distracted by elaborate and designer dresses which she is often photographed in. Another photographers work within the exhibition that also focuses on Hepburns face rather than her as a whole is Richard Avedon.

Further into the exhibition images from behind the scenes of filming and stills of her films are shown. The images show Hepburn in yet another light and in some of her most iconic cinematic moments. One of the images which stood out the most for me was the image by Howell Conant which pictured Hepburn in her role as Holly Golightly in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. All of these images showed Hepburn in many different lights and stages of her life. As a result the exhibition begins to questions how much control Hepburn really had of her own image.

Towards the end of the exhibition we are able to see Hepburn in later life and the legacy she has left behind. On a wall before exiting the exhibition was a collage of images that shows all her cover shoots in LIFE magazine. Alongside this is a brief introduction and two images of her later philanthropic work. In my opinion this part of the exhibition was disappointing. I felt that the exhibition did not focus enough on Hepburn’s humanitarian work, especially her work as an ambassador for UNICEF where she spent long periods of time in countries such as Sudan and Somalia. It would have been interesting to see yet another side to the icon and see more than two images of her hands on approach to the role of ambassador. Overall the exhibition encapsulates the adoration the public have for Hepburn and the legacy she has continued to leave even after her death in 1993.

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Published by

Charlotte Pattinson

Photography student

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