Bill Cunningham. The name instantly sparks the most pleasant image in ones mind; an individual, charismatic man, riding his bicycle through Manhattan. And in his additional backpack, that essential item which illustrated his artistic projections of society: his 35-milimetre camera. This morning, the world awoke to the news that this legendary photographer had passed away at age 87, and with this news, a sense of great sorrow arose. This is due to the fact that, quite simply, we have lost a true icon to the fashion industry.
I first became aware of Bill Cunningham a few years ago when I watched a documentary titled: Bill Cunningham New York. I watched it during the time when I was becoming more and more interested in the fashion industry, and in particular, photography. The documentary interestingly profiles the life of Cunningham, a key fashion photographer, whose work contributed to the New York Times. What immediately attracted me to the film was Cunningham’s stand-out persona; he did not fit the stereotypical photographer image but instead was a singular presence in the midst of Manhattan madness. Yet most importantly, the contrasting concept of photography that he was renowned for: street style.
Fashion photography has developed a great deal over the past 100 years, and street style photography in particular did not gain popularity until the early 70s. Most people today are aware of street style photography, as it is a great part of fashion week. We frequently see features in top fashion magazines showcasing the ‘best street style’ of the day, and these features contain natural photos of men and women expressing their creativity and individuality on the streets through their own fashion sense. It can easily be said that this popular type of photography today would not be as significant had it not been for Bill Cunningham. Cunningham’s artistic perception of those around him generated immaculate photographic results, which inspired younger generations to learn from his craft.
Cunningham crucially contributed to the fashion industry through his candid photography. Working for The Times for nearly 40 years, his work was a way of charting the ever-changing fashion scene in Manhattan. His street style photographs were not forced and planned, like those belonging to editorials; rather, they were spontaneous and therefore completely natural. Mirroring this was his persona, which was utterly engrossed in his work and his subjects. Contrary to the nonchalant figures surrounding him, Bill constantly beamed with smiles and enthusiasm. He never once accepted a pay check, and was simply deferential to his rising fame following his 2010 documentary. Yet prior to his photography career, Cunningham established a millinery salon in mid-century Manhattan, was drafted during the Korean War, and also had a successful career as a fashion reporter.
Cunningham served as a reminder of the core concept of fashion: the clothing. When being awarded France’s Legion D’Honneour in 2008, he claimed: ‘I’m not in it for the celebrities in their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the art, the cut, the new cut, the inspiration…that’s everything. It’s the clothes, not the celebrity and not the spectacle.’ He did not care for the fame and popularity associated with the fashion industry; instead, he appreciated every element of every piece of clothing. Through photography, he wished to find and capture a subject, not be the subject. And the subjects eagerly awaited him and his nifty camera, as Anna Wintour often stated: ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’
Even today, in a fashion industry rapidly being taken over by technology and modernity, a sense of the traditional industry remained through Bill Cunningham, as his presence was a constant reminder of the essential aspect of the industry: clothes, and how they portrayed ones identity. In an essay he composed for The Times in 2002, Cunningham iconically explained that ‘Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.’ Fashion has undoubtedly evolved across the decades, and Cunningham iconically captured candid, street style photos across crucially changing times in order to tell the story of this evolution. As mentioned, I watched Bill Cunningham New York when I was becoming interested in fashion photography, and seeing Bill’s life in action made me want to capture and create images of a similar kind, though with my own personality stamped upon them. It is Bill’s work which has inspired my own, and the more I experience photography and fashion, the more I honour the work of the master, a true icon to the fashion industry.
For me, Bill Cunningham is the true representation of street style photography, and therefore photography of the most every day and natural kind. There is no doubt that the fashion industry will greatly miss his lively character, riding his bicycle through the streets of New York, camera slung around his neck, scouting for his next photographic subject. He has laid down his camera forever, yet his character lives on through his photographs, which serve as reminders of honouring the core concepts of photography and fashion, as opposed to it’s economic and fame-related results. As he once famously said, ‘Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.’ Thank you Bill for reminding us of this, and for capturing history which will long inspire myself and many.
~ Bill Cunningham: March 13th 1929 – June 25th 2016 ~