what made bill cunningham great

As we mourn his passing, we salute the unassuming icon and pioneer street snapper.

by Oliver Lunn
04 July 2016, 1:40pm

It's hard to watch Bill Cunningham New York today and not choke up a little. The documentary about the late fashion photographer, who died aged 87 last week, is a glowing portrait of a singular man. That trademark blue workman's jacket, that toothy grin, that 35mm Nikon dangling from his neck. With the energy and innocence of a 12-year-old boy, Cunningham zooms across Manhattan on his old bicycle to chronicle New York's best dressed. For over four decades he'd been documenting the city's stylish inhabitants for his On the Street column in the New York Times. He also photographed from the sidelines of the catwalk, and at swanky events all over the city. The man barely ever shut his eyes.

Anna Wintour, whom he had been documenting since she was 19, would pose for him in the street while giving other swarming photographers the cold shoulder. Iris Apfel thought his blue jacket was classy. Other fashion figures praised the way he prided clothes over celebrities, choosing not to photograph Catherine Deneuve on one occasion because she "wasn't wearing anything interesting." Here are some other things that made him a truly great NYC fashion photographer.

He was an unassuming fashion photographer
Cunningham had zero pretensions as a photographer, and even went so far as to say what he did was not photography. "Any real photographer would say I'm a fraud, and they're right," he explains in the doc, "I'm just about capturing what I see and documenting what I see." What he saw, what he loved, he discovered in the street. For him, that was where the real fashion show was. Unlike a Richard Avedon or a Mario Testino, Cunningham swapped the stuffy confines of the studio for the concrete jungle of Manhattan. As a result his work never feels stiff, contrived, or pretentious. You always sense the hungry eye of the urban hunter lurking behind the lens.

He was the polar opposite of the people he photographed
The most curious thing about Cunningham is the fact that his lifestyle was so extremely different to the people he photographed. And he was happy with that. He was never seduced by the extravagance of their world, the moneyed glitz and opulence. At fashion shows and fundraisers, he mainly photographed dolled up members of high society. Cunningham, on the other hand, lived in a tiny apartment where he slept on an old mattress amid towers of filing cabinets and books. He ate in unassuming cafes where breakfast would cost you three bucks ("the cheaper the better"). He ripped up checks on more than one occasion. "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do," he explains, "don't touch money; it's the worst thing you can do."

He captured the vibrancy of NYC life
Ultimately, Cunningham's work celebrates the vibrancy of NYC and its sartorially daring denizens. His eye was sensitive to originality. "A lot of people have taste but they don't have the daring to be creative." He loved blizzards in the city because that was when he could catch people leaping over puddles and fashioning raincoats out of trash bags. But the street wasn't the whole picture in the fashion world. To get the whole picture, he insisted on photographing three things: the collections, the women on the street who've bought the clothes and wear them in different ways, and the evening events where models and designers brush shoulders with philanthropists and magazine editors. "You can't report to the public unless you've seen it all."

He was committed to the shot and had a crazy work ethic
That old fashioned gee-whiz energy of Cunningham's was boundless, like a kid who can't sit still, desperate to see, desperate to do. In the street, he was surprisingly agile and balletic, weaving in and out of traffic, an old guy with a fragile frame. He had no time for bullshit, and often no time for lunch or sleep. His focus was razor-sharp. When he was offered fancy food and drinks at events he would invariably say no. Remaining objective was his priority. But that was a small sacrifice in comparison to the romantic life he never pursued; it just wasn't on his radar. He worked night and day, all his energy focused on his work — there was no time for it. But regardless of whether his work was a distraction from his loneliness or not, he clearly loved every second of it.

He was interested in clothes not celebrities
Though Cunningham loved the world of fashion — the events, the launches — he never cared for the social side of biz. You wouldn't find him knocking back a glass of Moet, schmoozing with a Hollywood scion, or getting a selfie with Anna Wintour at a fundraiser. The who-knows-who stuff didn't excite him. He was just 100% about the clothes: the cut, the lines, the look, the gesture, the color. And he was very opinionated. When he sat front row at Paris fashion week, he wouldn't applaud everyone. If he didn't like what he saw, if he thought it had been copied or done before, his camera would simply stay in his lap. And, because he had an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, he would know exactly what was or wasn't derivative.

He was inclusive and treated everyone the same
Whether you were a New Yorker who worked in telesales or a high priestess of the catwalk, Cunningham didn't care. He treated everyone the same and never expected to be treated differently himself, despite his prestigious New York Times press badge dangling from his neck. Unlike many street photographers keen to get right up in people's faces, he wasn't invasive. He hated the idea of the paparazzi. He was gracious, genuine, and inclusive. When some photos he took for Women's Wear Daily were accompanied with snarky comments about his subjects, it nearly destroyed him. He hated the idea of being associated with that kind of journalism. He cared about people and how he portrayed them.



Text Oliver Lunn
Image via YouTube

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Bill Cunningham
on the street