Today, I am going to tell you about a legend. A legend whom, I am embarrassed to admit, I’ve only recently become familiar with. He’s the kind of person that once you know of him, you will wish you always had. He’s the original street style photographer, one regular “New York Character,” a true documentarian; Bill Cunningham.
Born in Boston in 1929, Cunningham began his career as a milliner (hat maker), before being drafted into the army during WWII. Upon his return, Bill began work with the Chicago Tribune and eventually, became a fashion journalist at Women’s Wear Daily. Soon after, he became fascinated with the outfits he saw walking down the streets, and began snapping photos of them. In fact, he is credited as the first to document what is now commonly referred to as, “street style.” Cunningham didn’t seem as interested in who was wearing the clothes, or even in the designer who created them. To him, it was all about the individual’s translation of garments. The different combinations of separates, the mix of high and low fashion, the unique personalities of these purely original outfits. He saw it more as humanity’s answer to camouflage. A beautiful defense mechanism as he is famously quoted to have said, “Fashion…is the armor 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.”
In December of 1978, the New York Times published Cunningham’s first street photography section, which soon became a regular series which still runs to this day. Looking back through the archives, it’s as if he has single-handedly documented over half a century of New York life and culture. And at eighty-five, he is still going strong. You can log on to the Times‘ website and listen to Bill’s video channel which is updated each week! Tuning in to hear Cunningham’s voice is wonderful. I love the excitement in his voice as he revels over his latest finds. You can tell his work brings him genuine joy, as if he is an anthropologist studying society; spotting new trends, likened to a newly discovered fossil.
Cunningham’s simple blue coat, camera and bicycle have become just as synonymous with the New York streets as a yellow cab. The now eighty-five year old is known for beginning at an event in Midtown, traveling downtown for the next, and rounding off the night at a final soiree uptown. He has managed to become one of the most beloved members of the fashion community, which is quite a feat for someone wielding a camera, taking candid shots of those passing by. Many times he is the only member of the media to receive invitations to events and will often score coveted front row seats at fashion shows around the world. In fact, even Anna Wintour herself has said if Bill ignores you, “It’s death!”
But still, why are celebrities and common people alike, who normally go to great lengths to ensure extreme privacy, ready to greet Bill with huge, warm smiles and a fabulous pose? From what I know of Bill, there are thousands of reasons, but I think above all, it is his genuine interest in the meaning behind the outfits. He has said often that he is not interested in celebrities and their free attire and styling, but instead, he really only cares about the clothes themselves. And so of course, his apathy to the person inside the outfit would make any attention seeking celebrity jump at the chance to be noticed by Bill. And regarding money, he hates being paid! He says, “See if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid!” And I gotta tell you, anyone who uses the term “kid” instantly melts my heart.
If you are interested in learning more about Cunningham, there is currently an exhibition of his photography on view at The New York Historical Society. Facades, which runs through June 15. The exhibit is a showcase of a series of Cunningham’s photographs, beginning in 1968. This eight year project started as a platform to explore his joint interest in the history of New York architecture and fashion. In these photos, he has dressed his models in modern styles of the times, corresponding to the year the building or facade was erected behind them. Through this juxtaposition, Cunningham creates a beautiful visual history of the past life of the New York streets.
You can also click here to view the entire documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. Made in 2010, the film follows Cunningham around as he documents the streets. It also gives an incredible view of Cunningham’s personal life, which up until then, had been kept very private by the rather shy and modest photographer. This is how I was first introduced to Bill, and I immediately fell in love with him and his philosophies. A genuine artist, whose humble interests have captured the oft times superficial global world of fashion, by documenting how he views the ever changing styles, and simultaneously, our ever changing society. Just a guy, a bike, and his camera. He is, the amazing Bill Cunningham.
New-York Historical Society
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at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street)
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