The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been, and always will be. —Bill Cunningham
Street style is a big thing in the fashion world. So big, that photographers from all over the world flock to the fashion capitals just to stand outside fashion shows and take pictures of the guests arriving. All over New York, London, Milan, and Paris, there are people claiming to be street style photographers for this online magazine or another. They’re quick to ask your name then shove their card in your hand before moving to the next victim, er, subject. None of them matter.
Only one street style photographer really mattered, and that was Bill Cunningham. Bill died yesterday afternoon at the age of 84.
There are only two or three photographers remaining for whom I would care to write a remembrance. For some, I can write about the experience of meeting them, of talking with them, and maybe even being friends. Not Bill. I have to write about Bill from a place of admiration and respect because he didn’t let anyone get any closer than that. He lived alone. He didn’t “hang out” with “the guys.” Try addressing him on the street and he waved you off. He wouldn’t go out for a drink. He wouldn’t just sit and talk. He was singularly focused on one thing: taking pictures.
A Dislike For Celebrity
Anyone who has wandered around Manhattan much at all has likely seen Bill. He rode a bicycle everywhere. The Times says he had over 30 of them over the years and that number doesn’t surprise me. Riding a bike in Manhattan can be challenging, but even as late as this past March he was still out there. He always wore the same blue worker’s coat, khaki pants, and white tennis shoes. He wore his camera slung around his neck, not too low, always at the ready. You couldn’t miss him.
One of the best quotes about Bill being used today is from Vogue‘s Anna Wintour: “Everyone dresses for Bill.” And they did. Modeling agencies would send up and coming models to walk the streets near where Bill was found most often in hopes of them being photographed. Celebrities pushing a new movie or desperately wanting some recognition would do the same. Yet, Bill didn’t care about celebrity. He didn’t need them in front of his camera. On more than one occasion he said:
I don’t pay attention to celebrities. I don’t photograph them. They don’t dress so… interestingly. They have stylists. I prefer real women who have their own taste.
Even at parties where the rich and famous were practically dripping from the chandeliers, one never saw Bill mixing and mingling. He’d be standing off to the side, watching, snapping away, fading into the decorations so as to not draw attention to himself.
An Obsession With Fashion
Street style didn’t start with Bill Cunningham and it won’t end with his passing. What we will miss, though, is an obsession with fashion that was particularly unique and original. Unlike most street style photographers who are simply looking for any way to get their work published, Bill was on the street taking pictures out of passion. Bill loved fashion. More specifically, Bill loved what people did with fashion and how they created their own style.
In turn, fashion loved Bill right back. There was a level of unspoken endorsement when Bill showed up to photograph a fashion show. He wouldn’t go to just any runway he happened across. He was more comfortable on the street and wasn’t shy about letting designers and editors know that. When he did shoot a fashion show, though, he didn’t stand with all the other photographers in the “pit.” Instead, he had a front row seat, almost always on a corner where he could catch models as they turned. He could get the front and back of an ensemble by just swiveling in his seat.
Fashion honored Bill with plenty of awards as well, but he never mentioned them, never made a big deal about them. Instead, he’d leave the ceremony where he had been honored and hit the street, taking pictures. He didn’t care about accolades, he cared only about fashion.
A Unique Photography
Bill never considered himself a good photographer. He thought he was too shy and not nearly aggressive enough. He never gave himself much credit.
For the bulk of his career, he shot on an inexpensive 35mm camera using Kodak T-Max film. When the Times made the switch to digital cameras, he was initially upset. He didn’t care for all the bells and whistles that got in the way of him taking a picture. What brought him around was the ability to turn off or dampen the sound of the shutter click. The extra quietness allowed him to take pictures without people noticing, catching them in more “real” poses.
He kept all his negatives from the early days. I’ve no idea to whom his estate might fall, but I am hopeful that perhaps someone will curate all those hundreds of thousands of frames and create a book of Bill’s photography. He wouldn’t have wanted the attention during his life, but he certainly deserves it.
Not Here For The Money
One of the most interesting aspects of Bill’s life is that he didn’t chase a paycheck. He worked totally freelance until 1990. After being hit by a truck and hurt rather badly, he finally accepted an offer from the New York Times for the insurance.
The money wasn’t a big thing to Bill, though. More important was the freedom to photograph what he wanted, where he wanted, and how he wanted. He didn’t want or need any editor telling him what to do. Bill was fiercely independent and would tear up advance checks from magazine editors who tried to get him to do a specific editorial for them.
As a result, Bill didn’t live a luxurious lifestyle. He slept on a cot. He wore simple clothes. He ate simple meals. And then, he took pictures.
Leaving A Legacy
If I’m having trouble keeping the tears from my eyes now, it’s likely to be worse come September. I never watched a fashion show but what I was always looking for Bill. Hitting New York this fall, the street is going to feel a bit empty. I’m going to look at whoever is sitting on that front row corner and think, “You don’t belong there. That’s Bill’s seat.”
I’m going to open the Style section of the Times now and it’s going to be a little less exciting. I’m sure they’ll find street style pictures from someone, perhaps a young freelancer, but it won’t be the same. Young photographers have ambition, but Bill had passion and the difference is noticeable.
We will miss you, Bill Cunningham. Know that your work and your life will always be remembered.