BILL CUNNINGHAM : NEW YORK

BY ALICE WILBY

 

Bill Cunningham, an American photographer and widely touted Godfather of street style photography, is a force to be reckoned with. At 83 years old and with 40 odd years of experience photographing the citizens of New York, Bill still takes to the streets every day on his trusty bike and come rain or shine, cycles the length and breadth of Manhattan in search of the ultimate outfit.

Long before the likes of The Satorialist or Facehunter, Cunningham’s democratic and anthropological approach to shooting fashion (chronicled in his weekly ‘On The Street’  features for the New York Times) has been engaging, exciting and inspiring the fashion industry and wider community for years. 

Captured on film in 2010, Bill Cunningham New York, created by documentary filmmaker Richard Press, is a moving, charming, funny insight into the life of a man whose huge body of work is a more accurate portrayal of New York’s fashion scene than any catwalk.

Fascinated by the reality of how people dress and interpret fashion, Bill lets the streets “speak to him”, documenting rather than dictating the trends as they reveal themselves to his watchful eye. 

It is this dogged approach to his craft that has set Cunningham apart from other photographers, but it is his skill at capturing, predicting and responding to fashion that has earnt him the respect and admiration of the industry.  

Anna Wintour, editor in chief of US Vogue, whom Cunningham has been documenting since she was 19, says, “I think that everyone who knows Bill and understands who he is and [what] he represents will always be thrilled to be photographed by Bill. I’ve said it many times - we all get dressed for Bill.”

A Harvard university dropout, Cunningham began working as a fashion journalist when he returned from being drafted, first on the Chicago tribune and later on Women’s Wear Daily, where he first started to take photographs on the street. A chance encounter with Greta Garbo led to Bill establishing a regular column of his photographs in The Times. Publishing the impromptu photographs of Garbo was, according to his then Times editor, somewhat of a turning point for the paper as it was the first time they had published photographs of a well-known personality without getting their permission.

Indeed, as a testament to his ground breaking form, his weekly ‘On the street’ column for the New York Times has now evolved to include an on-line film of the past week’s story. Complete with voiceover from Bill, it beautifully and succinctly dissects that week’s hot topic, complete with cultural, historical and art references. 

Cunningham says that the majority of his photographs aren’t published – unsurprising for a man with such prolific turnover – but the scale of his work is undeniable. "More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York” said designer Oscar de la Renta. “It's the total scope of fashion in the life of New York."

Bill Cunningham, we salute you!