Fashion photographers, being perforce behind the camera, rarely become icons themselves. Bill Cunningham (1929-2016) was a rarity; an unassuming man, not stylish himself, who nevertheless became a barometer of fashion on the streets of New York City. His work at major fashion shows earned him praise, but his fame arose from the outdoors, capturing people wearing their best and hoping to be noticed – hoping, indeed, that Cunningham himself would notice them. To be photographed by Bill Cunningham was a badge of honor among the fashion-conscious.
I suppose I began seeing Cunningham’s iconic New York Times column, On The Street, when it began in 1978, though I was in high school at the time and distinctly un-fashion conscious. I remember skimming it, briefly noticing whatever theme Cunningham had discerned among the Big Apple’s fashionable folk. Perhaps it was a color coming into dominance in Eastertime fashions, or a new application of an old look or technique. Whatever it was, it showed what people were wearing, not the industry-dominated predictions of what would be hot in the coming months, or fashion so forward it becomes wearable, but not practical, art. He preferred photographing people in clothes that they owned, rather than rentals – for fashion shows, of course, other rules apply, but Cunningham was more democratic than most fashionistas.
Bill Cunningham: On The Street, a coffee-table book drawn from Cunningham’s years of On The Street columns makes a welcome diversion, a blast from the past and the comparatively recent present. How good the selection is can only be guessed at; Cunningham’s archive is vast, and will likely be re-examined many times. All I can say is that I have repeatedly gone back to this book since I got it last Christmas, and it continues to delight and instruct me.
The editors (primarily Tiina Loite, former photography editor at the New York Times Style section, collected a selection of photographs from his decades of close observation, with the changing face of the city itself – or unchanging, take your pick – as its backdrop. What can you say about one photo from the 1980s in which a stylish woman has turned away from the camera because a man is being mugged behind her (p. 57)? That’s NYC for you.
There are celebrities, of course, though they are few and stand out less than their status would have you imagine. Andy Warhol is there, well-dressed but not especially stylish; the dynamic duo of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley, are naturally present. But most of these well-dressed folk are anonymous, their errands and concerns of the day forgotten. They dressed to be noticed, and Bill Cunningham noticed them.
Art does not solely exist in dedicated spaces; it thrives in the channels of everyday life. As I have grown older I have come to realize that every moment can have art in it, either in the process of creation or in its realization. As a result I have become fashion-conscious, and a Bill Cunningham fan. I see Cunningham as a successor to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose interest in the decisive moment shapes all street photography. Cunningham’s subjects are going somewhere; waiting cross the street provides a perfect opportunity for a photograph; the shifting currents of weather provide settings for quotidian drama. Trends are defines not by what designers think will be trendy, but by what people wear.
If this post has a moral to it, perhaps it is this: you never know who might be looking at you, or how you affect them. So many of Cunningham’s subject are looking away, toward their destination, some obstacle, or simply enwrapped in the motions of ordinary life. They went on, but a little bit of them was preserved, and may yet serve to inspire others. Put on the hat, wear the daring combination – the next Bill Cunningham might see you, and add you to posterity.