On Saturday 25th June, the fashion world and beyond mourned the passing of a man who humbly spent his legendary career behind the lens to capture what fascinated him: New York’s culture and street fashion. Bill Cunningham was 87. Through his ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’ columns in The New York Times, Bill Cunningham pioneered his own branch of cultural anthropology with his fashion photography. The New Yorker declared his columns as New York’s unofficial yearbook, chronicling “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked” (The New Yorker, 2009).
Bill Cunningham in 1954 and 2015
In the 1950’s, Cunningham’s career as a milliner saw its final days as feminism revolutionised women’s fashion away from its traditional bearings. After freelancing briefly as a fashion reporter, Bill leaped into the world of photojournalism when he was handed his first camera, an Olympus Pen D half-frame camera that only cost $35. Photography, as opposed to writing, was for him a more fluent expression.
“For him, it wasn’t about the aesthetics of photography. It was about storytelling”
– Lesley Vinson
‘Facades’ | Editta Sherman in 1972 and 1970 | Photography by Bill Cunningham
Riding his bicycle everywhere, he wore his customary utilitarian uniform almost everywhere: a blue french worker’s jacket with beige khakis and black sneakers – his office was essentially the street. It epitomised his simplistic, shy and optimistic essence. Armed with his well-founded knowledge of fashion, Bill was able to capture a democratic range of individuals and styles that spoke the social language of fashion.
Bill Cunningham at Carolina Herrera Fall 2013
But Cunningham’s rabid enthusiasm for Haute Couture and peculiarity juxtaposed his uncomplicated person. A documentarian at heart, he shot like a war photographer. People on the streets knew not to get in his way, otherwise he would “climb over you” to get to what he wanted to photograph (Kim Hastreiter, NY Times, 2016). A love for eccentricity, Bill would shoot without judgement and with curiosity. Over the span of four decades, Bill accumulated a photo-diary of his muses; eccentric statement-makers such as Anna Piaggi, Shail Vpadhya, Iris Apfel and Anna Wintour.
“It’s important to almost be invisible…capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”
– Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham | The New York Times
The street was too exciting to be left alone, Cunningham called it the “missing ingredient” in fashion journalism (Cunningham, NY Times, 2002). His inclusive coverage of street fashion, evening fashion and designer wear presented the full picture of what people were wearing at that moment in time.
“I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.”
Bill Cunningham | Photography by Peter Stigter 2012
Distanced, and almost repelled by fame and fortune, Bill liked to live modestly. He didn’t own a television, slept in a single-sized cot in a studio which was filled with his negatives (film), and showered in a shared bathroom. He was even known to rip up cheques from magazines, famously remarking: “money is the cheapest thing, liberty and freedom is the most expensive” (Bill Cunningham, n.d.).
With the little insight we have on his private, basic and frugal way of life, many have described him as a fashion monk. Writer Lauren Collins describes Bill as more of a “layperson who has dedicated his life to the tribe without becoming a part of it” (The New Yorker, 2009). Shying away from the limelight, Bill preferred to be anonymous and elusive -a mere observer- “something unachievable for such a superstar” (Michele McNally, The New York Times, 2016). It took directors eight years to persuade him to appear in Bill Cunningham New York, a 2010 documentary about his life’s work.
“He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand.”
– The New York Times (2016)
Looking back in time; it was late December of 1978 that Cunningham unknowingly shot photos of Greta Garbo (he was more taken by the shoulder cut of her nutria coat), Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Farrah Fawcett and the King and Queen of Spain -all from the corners of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, which became his most frequent observation points. On December 30th 1978, the Metropolitan Report featured a half-page of his photos, and soon after, his ‘On the Street’ column became a recurring feature. Growing to be a perennial veteran of his craft, Bill Cunningham’s talents became very well known and highly regarded by fashion’s elite. In Anna Wintour’s famous words, “we all dress for Bill” (The NY Times, 2016).
“Stay here on Fifth Avenue and you see the whole world. Summertime—the vacationers and the Europeans. The holidays—everyone from the Midwest, the West, Japan. They’re all here, the whole world!” -Bill Cunningham
Cunningham is drawn to anything natural and excitingly new; children, animals, the weather, socially historic events. Bar times of serious sickness, Bill Cunningham was always out and about, capturing what made him tick. It was his adventurous stamina which fueled his motivation to collect evidence of moments in time. He recalls the time that he left Oscar de la Renta’s show in 1967 upon hearing commotion outside, to discover “flower children protesting the Vietnam war” (Bill Cunningham, The New Yorker, 2009). Another time, he was notified by Charlotte Curtis (who covered the society section of The New York Times) to head up to Sheep Meadow in the Easter of 1967, where he saw the “flower children” lying on the grass. To Cunningham, this “was all about the fashion revolution” (The New York Times, 2002). In the 1980’s, he was one of the first photographers to document gay pride parades and AIDS awareness gatherings (Washington Post, 2016).
“He is also the only person I have ever known to be happiest during Fashion Week when there was rain or snow in the forecast, simply because it meant people would be dressing differently and eventually jumping over slush puddles”
Bill Cunningham | The New York Times 2016
It was his pleasure to capture New York’s fashion in response to changes in weather -especially those caught off-guard in rain or blizzards. Through his revolutionary street photography, Cunningham was able to depict how people really live and how they dress, and the impact that he and his photography has had on fashion and beyond has undoubtedly been immeasurable.
Cunningham’s photographic lifestyle has bred many successors in parallel streams, such as Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York. Back in 2002, Bill wrote an autobiographical piece for The New York Times, and is (here) for anyone who is interested in delving a bit more into his private mind, for he is someone whose work will stand the test of time and will always be celebrated by fashion insiders and outsiders alike.
Bill Cunningham on the streets of New York during Hurricane Sandy 2012
Written by Alice Pearce
Edited by Christina WrightReferences
The New York Times (2016). Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87. [Online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/style/bill-cunningham-legendary-times-fashion-photographer-dies-at-87.html?_r=0
Bill Cunningham for the New York Times (2002, republished 2016). Bill Cunningham on Bill Cunningham. [Online] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/fashion/bill-cunningham-on-his-life.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Ffashion
Eric Wilson, Refinery 29 (2016). 14 Fashion Insiders Remember the Late, Great Bill Cunningham. [Online] Available at: http://www.refinery29.uk/2016/06/115211/bill-cunningham-fashion-photographer-memories
The Washington Post (2016). Bill Cunningham, photographer of New York street fashion, dies at 87. [Online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/bill-cunningham-photographer-of-new-york-street-fashion-dies-at-87/2016/06/25/e8ac6cec-3b20-11e6-9ccd-d6005beac8b3_story.html