Whether you consciously know it or not, you have been touched by what Bill Cunningham created
If it weren’t for Bill Cunningham, fashion as we know it would be a different place. People wouldn’t think as much about what they wore when “no one is watching.” The Sartorialist wouldn’t exist the way that it does. The world of blogging, including this site, may not be what it is or even have existed.
Over the last 40 years, Bill has been photographing the people of New York City – not just the elite, but real people – and pushing them out to a global audience in the Sunday New York Times.
Why? Because he believed that “the best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been, and always will be.”
If you go to the shows or have seen images of the atmosphere outside of them, it’s a circus. There are people pretending not to care about the photographers, but waiting for them to take their photo.
There are photographers staging people for the best shot in front of the prettiest backdrop. There are even photographers that ask groups of people to walk towards them a few times to get a perfect walking “candid”. Their goal is to get a photo that gets high engagement online. You see the difference here?
Bill didn’t think about any of that.
Was he the “best photographer” in terms of the quality, detail or technical prowess to his photos? No. And that’s okay because that’s not what he was about. He was about capturing moments – the woman on Madison Avenue crossing the street in her best fur, the editor coming out of a show with her/his critique subtly showcased on their face.
These were real-life moments that were not staged or taken because the subject was wearing a specific designer. This was an important differentiator in why such a broad audience could connect with his images.
The other thing that set him apart was that he visibly enjoyed doing his job. He was smiling behind the lens for every photo he took. After 40 years and at the age of 87, he still looked like a kid in a candy store in a sea of people who are too cynical (myself included) and serious about fashion. Being in his presence forced you to do the same.
While I never found myself featured in the New York Times Sunday Style section, I’ve had a few encounters with Bill and to be honest, it was genuinely thrilling.
He once rode by me on his bike at Lincoln Center while I was walking to work backstage at a show and although he didn’t stop to take my photo, him turning his head while he rode past and “noticing me” gave me a rush of adrenaline that was palpable.
That feeling was something people at all levels – from myself to Anna Wintour- could feel and it never got old.
Knowing that somewhere in one of those filing cabinets that overflowed his apartment (and that he slept on) is a photo he captured of me, makes me feel like I am a part of something. A community. Which, when you think about it, isn’t something that many of us feel like we are genuinely a part of in an industry that can often be pretentious and disposable.
Bill Cunningham loved what he did enough to do it seven days a week. He never got sick of it. He loved it until the end with people around the world in love with him and his work. He was a diamond in the rough and an inspiration with an overwhelmingly positive message – no matter what you do, do it with passion.
On June 25, 2016, Bill Cunningham passed away in Manhattan. He was 87.
Thanks for reading.
He Spoke Style