On June 25th, New York City lost one of its most recognizable, beloved, and iconic mobile fixtures/institutions of the last 50 years, fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.
While it may at first seem somewhat diminishing to his legacy to describe Bill Cunningham as “merely” a fashion photographer, those who knew him personally would probably agree that he would have had it no other way. But he was more than that. For nearly 5 decades, Cunningham was poetry in motion in his trademark blue jacket and khakis, with his bicycle and camera, a seemingly tireless (and strangely reassuring) presence on the streets of Manhattan. Willfully and rebelliously disdainful (but never ignorant) of trends, he documented street styles that would have otherwise gone undocumented; those tiny moments and juxtapositions whose value only he could see (at least until his pictures appeared in his column in the New York Times, On the Street).
For most of that period, he could be seen almost everyday on his bike, either rolling past, or with one foot on the pedal and the other on the pavement, reaching with his camera for something magical. As he made his daily rounds of the city, hunting for a glimpse of the sublime, he inadvertently offered a glimpse of it to all of us who saw him.
He also essentially invented the idea of street style, through the act (or the art) of looking; suddenly, under his gaze, it had a reason to exist. And he was dedicated; even after a recent stroke, Bill could still be seen walking the streets of New York with a cane and a camera, documenting those pieces of New York that only he could appreciate.
He had always been an avid watcher of people. In an article he wrote for the Times, Bill recounts going to church as a child and being enchanted by the sight of the church women in their hats. In fact, wherever young Bill went, it seemed that the most interesting thing going on was what people were wearing.
Years later, Cunningham found an empty storefront on 52nd St. for cheap, and started making hats. Word spread, and soon his avant-garde creations were gracing the heads of people with names like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Jackie Kennedy. During the Korean War, Bill was drafted and stationed in France, then the undisputed capital of the fashion world. After his tour was over, he came back with the latest Parisian styles dancing around in his head, and wasted no time incorporating what he’d seen.
As it turned out, Bill could not live on the income generated by the sale of fancy hats alone. By now, he was already well-known for his exploratory bike rides around the city, and when a friend gifted him with a $35 half-frame camera, he began to document in earnest all of the beautiful things he saw. Sometimes it was a riot of color on an otherwise boring city street, or a piece of lush fabric draped across a shoulder that caught his eye.
Bill rarely shot celebrities, preferring to photograph people who had actually chosen their own clothes, as opposed to those who had been dressed by others. When he did end up photographing a celebrity, it was often because he was so focused on some small aspect of their outfit that he had neglected to look at the person’s face. In the fashions of the street, Bill apprehended a truth that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Unlike the runway, or the red carpet, street fashion seemed to provide a direct pathway to that indefinable thing he was searching for.
After his photos were featured in New York Newsday and other publications, the editors at the New York Times recognized the uniqueness of Cunningham’s vision. Through the “narrow” window of street fashion, he was actually reporting on something that no one else was; maybe it was for that reason that his photos seemed to immediately fill a hole in our social consciousness that we didn’t know was there.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Cunningham’s candid snapshots were regularly featured in the New York Times. Meanwhile, sightings of Cunningham around the city continued to multiply, innumerable photos would be taken, fashion trends, fashion jobs, and manufacturing in the city would come and go, as miles were logged on a procession of beater bikes that were inevitably either vandalized beyond repair, stolen, or worn down. Through it all, social conventions, fashion fads, and offers to sign an official contract with The New York Times, were routinely, and summarily, ignored.
The New York that Bill Cunningham gave us was a vibrant, unsung New York, resistant to labels. Some might even call it “the real New York.” His window on culture, like his philosophy when it came to photography, was a purposefully limited, and subjective one. Nonetheless, his work and his vision transcended the camera and subject matter’s narrow focus, revealing a side of New York, of fashion, and of life that would have otherwise been forever lost to us. He understood that the creative impulse as it manifests in fashion is not handed down from on high by the fashion gods, but rather is something that bubbles up from the streets. He kept a healthy skepticism towards the fashion world proper, refusing to be bogged down by its rules, instead exploring worlds of fashion that they could never have dreamed of. The curve of a neck as it disappears under a shawl, or the way a piece of fabric flows and is illumined in the sun; a city street, almost empty except for that one nearly lost thing- these candid moments were worlds unto themselves, made real the moment that they were captured in his lens. In the work of Bill Cunningham, you won’t find a history of fashion trends; you will find something timeless, a vision narrowly snatched out of oblivion, uniquely and undeniably his. His New York is a personal one, one that he was intrinsic to, as indeed we all were, though we may not have known it; and because of his genius, and generosity, it will belong to all of us, forever.