australian photographers on what bill cunningham meant to them
Following the passing of the iconic street photographer, we ask some of our favourite shooters about the legacy and influence of Bill Cunningham.
Photo by Ben Clement
Since Bill Cunningham passed away over the weekend, social media has been flooded with people sharing personal accounts of how he influenced their work and lives. With this in mind we invited some of our favourite shooters to reflect on what they learned from Bill, and how he taught them to see their subjects differently.
I met Bill when I was photographing the J Crew show at NYFW in 2013, I happened to be placed next to him for the event. He had this charm, which I'm sure many people will mention, and just a really friendly vibe. I was thinking about asking to take his portrait until I noticed other photographers coming up to him to do the same; he kept telling them to go away as he was working. I admired that after so many years he was so passionate about his job and wasn't distracted. He was so fast, he would see something he liked, even if he was mid conversation, and just shoot a quick photo. Bam!
I think he paved the way for a lot of photographers, especially in terms of seeing how long someone can have a career in photography if you work hard and keep at it. It has been great to see how many stories have been shared about him, it shows how approachable and cool he was.
Although I'd seen his work, it was when I saw a photo of Bill's face that I immediately wanted to understand more about him. He had so much immediate kindness and sincerity, he seemed truly humble — a rare thing in his field. I wish I could have met him, what a wonderful sighting it would be: his blue jacket and silver hair, cameras slung around his neck just going about his business in a sea of image hungry digital freaks. I imagine it would be very refreshing to meet someone whose approach was so earnest. Everything is so fast today; Bill was a moment of clarity, stillness, a bit of truth in a sea of manipulated images. He is the epitome of "you do you," that's important to hold onto.
When Bill Cunningham said, "You see, if you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid" it felt like he saw our present light-years before we did. As public funding of the arts falls away, private funding is now the great oppressor of creativity. Whether it's 90 percent of music on the radio sounding like they're auditioning to be in the background of a mobile phone ad, exhibitions competing for alcohol sponsorship, or the vertical integration of major film studios making it impossible for another Easy Rider to ever happen — money prevents creativity moving forward. Bill Cunningham knew that, and that's what made him great.
Trying to remember how I discovered Bill Cunningham is like trying to remember how you discovered Marilyn Monroe — you just know them somehow. But my strongest memories of him are from when I lived in Paris. During fashion week I'd shoot outside the big shows with him, I always made sure I got a snap of him. One day I saw him without his blue jacket, that was a surprise!
I was always careful not to bother him though. You could tell he was always searching for the next shot and didn't want to be disturbed. He didn't strike me as someone that wanted fame, he just wanted to do his job. I think Bill knew that street fashion photos don't need to be perfect. He captured imperfections, energy, age, quirks and colours. It was about getting the shot — not setting up the perfect shot.
I discovered Bill when I started to travel to New York for work. Once I saw him on the street and stalked him for a few minutes. He showed that it was okay to be humble and grateful for what you have, it's okay to smile at a stranger and enjoy what you see in front of you.
Bill Cunningham was definitely an influence on me: my career in fashion photography began when I started shooting my own street style column for The Sun Herald in Sydney. It was my first big photography job and I still look at it as such a lesson in personal style, light, location, the body and personality.
He showed us the romance of fashion — the fantasy, the theatre and the love. And reminded us that the world is a stage full of constant beauty and characters. I think a lot of people forget how much inspiration is literally on the streets they live in. He showed us all that; his work is magical, but so was his personality and that's recognisable in his work. He wasn't biased to expense or notoriety, or driven by money or fame. That's such an inspiration in the fast paced, fame hungry world we seem to live in now.