Goodbye to the most candid gentleman, with the most busily observant lens, ever born, the Godfather of street-style photography, and a legend, Bill Cunningham. We miss you already.
[Who will New York dress up for now?…]
Bill Cunningham, who turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York, chronicling an era’s ever-changing social scene for The New York Times by training his busily observant lens on what people wore — stylishly, flamboyantly or just plain sensibly — died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 87.
And according to The New York Times: “In 2010, a documentary film, (“Bill Cunningham New York”) premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews. Yet Mr. Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him. He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand”.
Yes, he was fashion photography’s most democratic eye. He didn’t see style in the top-down sense of what walked the runways and was decreed as fashionable by magazines and luxury advertising—a somewhat radical approach when he was starting out. Instead, he took in the street as a whole and picked out the seemingly random trendlets that real people were adopting. Fashion’s near-obsessive emphasis on “personal style” and street fashion now owes a great deal to his influence.
“I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is.” – Bill Cunningham
Cunningham started paying attention to people’s clothes early on. After dropping out of Harvard University in 1948, the Boston-born Cunningham moved to New York where he worked as a hat maker and in advertising before being drafted into the U.S. Army.
After a stint in the Army, Cunningham returned to New York where he wrote fashion pieces for the Chicago Tribune. He soon segued into photography and started taking photographs of people on the streets before joining the Times. In a 2002 interview with the paper, Cunningham said he always tried to be as discreet as possible because “you get more natural pictures that way.”
In 1978, his first photo set published in the New York Times featured passers-by on the corner of his beloved 57th and 5th, including the elusive Greta Garbo wearing a fur coat, beanie and sunglasses. (He said didn’t recognize her.)
As Anna Wintour said in the documentary, “We all dress for Bill.”
Definitely the end of an era…