I was so sad to hear about the passing of Bill Cunningham. I’ve followed his work since my early twenties when I found and bought an old copy of The New York Times at Jason’s Second Hand Book Store in Auckland, New Zealand. There would be no street style fashion photography and reporting as we know it today if it weren’t for him. His work and commentary on people and what they wore, did and still fascinates me.
It’s not right to just call him a fashion photographer. Bill Cunningham dedicated his life to his fascination with clothes, real clothes, interesting clothes that people wear and designers created. I collected as many copies of his work as I could find and tried to learn more about his fascinating character.
Richard Press’s documentary Bill Cunningham New York was a great way to learn about this man’s life, work and legacy. If you haven’t seen it, please do, it’s brilliantly filmed, funny, fascinating and poignant. It was also thrilling for me when the New York Times started to upload Bill Cunningham’s photos online with recorded commentary by Bill himself. Listening to them before I started work on a story or during quick breaks when writing was always great.
I learnt more than just about photography and fashion history from Bill Cunningham. I also learnt about writing. The man was relentless, he worked constantly. Work, passion and love were all the same thing to him and in the process he photographed countless people on the street recording the manifestation of culture. The ethos of his work, if you really look at it, is about life itself. Bill Cunningham made no judgments on what he saw, he wasn’t cruel like that. He saw the normal, the everyday, the privileged, the celebrity, the person jumping over a puddle, he captured it all, and reported on it. He wasn’t attracted to who the person was, he documented how and what they wore, probing the idea that all of it is, was and always will be interconnected with the social and political infrastructure of a city.
I’ve complied some of my favourite facts and quotes from Bill who will always be remembered as a pioneer and a true cultural reporter as well as an icon of culture himself.
“I’m interested in clothes. I don’t go to the movies much and have never owned a television. I’d never be a paparazzi. I couldn’t be! To torment people and chase them, oh that I couldn’t do. I wouldn’t do. I think it has to be done just discreetly and quietly, invisible, I think is the word.”
Bill always shot in film. He rode his bike around New York, from one event to the next or simply hung around photographing people as they walked by, noticing the patterns and trends of fashion in the youth, elderly and everyone in between.
“You have to do three things. You don’t get the most information from any one. You have to photograph the collections, you have to photograph the women in the street who had bought the things and how they are wearing them and then you have to go to the evening events. You can’t report to the public unless you’ve seen it all. People just go off and say what they think, well it isn’t really what I think, it’s what I see.”
Bill Cunningham started the documentation of street style. He could see in clothes and trends what other people couldn’t and was interested in more than just capturing fashion on the streets but capturing life as it was happening around him. What interested him was what clothes on the runway were wearable by everyday people. If they weren’t wearable he wasn’t interested.
“That’s the important thing, never to be owned. Keep free. Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive.”
Bill refused to take money when he didn’t need it. When he and Annie Flanders started Details magazine it was all about up and coming designers and it was a huge artistic success. Then when Condé Nast acquired it, the cheques that were owed to Bill kept piling up. He simply wasn’t interested.
“You see if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid, that’s the key to the whole thing. Don touch money, it’s the worse thing you can do.”
Bill lived for most of his adult life in a in the legendary studios of Carnegie Hall. His apartment was filled with filling cabinets of all his negatives and photographs and loads of fashion books and magazines. He had no kitchen and used a public bathroom.
“I eat with my eyes”
When attending events, whether fashion shows, galas or charity balls, Bill was always working. Although he was as esteemed as most of the guests, he never accepted a meal or even a drink of water. It was simple to him he was working and didn’t think it was fitting to act as a guest. He much preferred seeing what people were wearing, how they wore it and then photographing it.
“When I photograph . . . I’m not interested in the celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the new cut, the lines, the colours, that’s everything. It’s the clothes not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”
When you look at his work, Bill is always capturing more than just a person. He’s reporting on a detail, a narrative, a conceptual idea that goes beyond what is super fashionable and hot right now.
“The wider world that perceives fashion as sometimes a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals, and problems that are enormous . . . the point is in fact that fashion, you know, it’s the armour to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilization.”
Bill has been watching shows since the 1940s so he definitely understands fashion and fashion history. He could go to a show, or see someone on a street wearing something in a particular way, something not everyone would notice, would photograph it and soon enough in a few months, it would be a trend.
“It’s as true today as it ever was. He who seeks beauty will find it.”
In 2008, Bill was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and during his speech he said the above quote. It’s a particularly heart-breaking moment in fact that was filmed in the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Funny thing is, that at the event ceremony, before he gave his speech he was actually working on covering his own event.