Funny Face is a 1957 musical comedy directed by Stanley Donen. Set to a Gershwin score, it centres on the romance between Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) and Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). Avery is a fashion photographer at Quality magazine; Stockton is the Greenwich Village intellectual who becomes his model. It is a frothy fantasy, in which the ‘plain’ bookish girl is swept into the world of haute couture, yet it also draws on real figures in the 1950s fashion industry.Most notably, Dick Avery is modelled on Richard Avedon. By 1957, Avedon was one of the world’s most famous photographers. Born in 1923, Avedon first took an interest in photography in his early teens, going on to study at the Design Laboratory at the New School of Social Research. It was there that Avedon was noticed by teacher Alexey Brodovitch, the Artistic Director at Harper’s Bazaar. In 1945, Brodovitch began giving Avedon freelance work at the magazine; Avedon rapidly rose the ranks to become lead photographer.
Renowned for marrying elegant glamour with a fun sense of spontaneity, Avedon often brought fashion photography out of the studio and onto the streets. This was initially out of necessity (when he first started working for Harper’s he was not granted access to a studio) but soon became a celebrated component of his aesthetic in the 1950s. Avedon’s go-to outdoor fashion shoot provided Funny Face with the set piece ‘Take the Picture’, in which Stockton poses for Avery on the streets of Paris. Stiffness and formality are eschewed in favour of natural vivacity as Stockton is captured in the flower market, at the train station and attempting to fish on the Seine.
The character of Jo Stockton was likely inspired by fashion model Doe Nowell, to whom Avedon was briefly married in the 1940s. Indeed, the screenplay of Funny Face was written by Nowell’s friend, Leonard Gershe. Of course, the characters’ resemblance to Avedon and Nowell is largely superficial. Stockton is the typical Hepburn ingénue; Avery is Astaire in his usual film persona – graceful, charming, and full of a jovial let’s-put-on-a-show-kids energy. It is in the look of the film that Avedon’s influence really comes to the fore. Working on Funny Face as ‘Special Visual Consultant’, Avedon peppered the film with memorable imagery. In particular, he furnished the opening titles with a sequence of glossy images: a woman in turban and jewels; chattering models in tweeds; Audrey Hepburn’s wide-eyed face, floating on a white background. Though these images closely resemble Avedon’s fashion photographs in style and composition, they differ in one key aspect: they are in colour. Avedon did take colour photographs but his editorial work in the 1950s was largely in black-and-white; it is a novelty, therefore, to see him approach 50s style in colour.
Funny Face is remembered for its famous leads, sparkling score, and sumptuous costumes. Yet photography is also integral to its success: Avery’s profession allows the film to experiment visually, showcasing still photographs on the big screen. On the film’s release, LIFE magazine declared it a ‘movie enlivened by many bewitching photographic tricks.’ Bewitching it certainly is: with Hepburn shouting ‘take the picture!’ in Paris, Funny Face makes photography seem effortless and beautifully simple.
This is an edited and expanded version of an article which first appeared in Vignette photography magazine in 2012.