Inspirational Photographer #4
A NEW film show the life and work of this legendary fashion photographer. "The Times of Bill Cunningham"
His life and his work
Cunningham contributed significantly to fashion journalism, introducing American audiences to Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Paul Gaultier. While working at Women's Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune, he began taking candid photographs of fashion on the streets of New York. He was a self-taught photographer. He took one such photograph of Greta Garbo, though he later said he had not recognized her while photographing her nutria coat: "I thought: 'Look at the cut of that shoulder. It's so beautiful.' All I had noticed was the coat, and the shoulder.
He then published a group of impromptu pictures in the New York Times in December 1978, which soon became the regular series On the Street. His editor at the New York Times, Arthur Gelb, called these photographs "a turning point for the Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission. Cunningham nevertheless joked about his role at the paper: "I'm just the fluff. I fill around the ads, if we have any." He pioneered the paper's coverage of the gay community, photographing a fundraising event in the Fire Island Pines in 1979 letting the perceptive reader interpret his photos without verbal clues. By the 1990s, he integrated AIDS benefits, pride parades, and Wigstock into his coverage.
Cunningham's most notable columns in the Times, On the Street and Evening Hours, ran in the paper from February 26, 1989 until shortly before his death in 2016.] For his society fashion column Evening Hours, he attended high society events such as the prestigious International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to select a few debutantes with the most fashionable, beautiful and elegant gowns to appear in his column. For On the Street, Cunningham photographed people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan, often at the corner Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, which The New York Times called Cunningham's "main perch". As he worked, his focus was on clothing as personal expression. He did not photograph people in the manner of paparazzi, preferring genuine personal style to celebrity. He once explained why he was not joining a group of photographers who swarmed around Catherine Deneuve: "But she isn't wearing anything interesting." Late in life he explained: "I am not fond of photographing women who borrow dresses. I prefer parties where women spend their own money and wear their own dresses.... When you spend your own money, you make a different choice." Instead, wrote Hilton Als in The New Yorker, "He loved 'the kids,' he said, who wore their souls on sleeves he had never seen before, or in quite that way." He was uninterested in those who showcased clothing they had not chosen themselves, which they modelled on the red carpet at celebrity events. Most of his pictures, he said, were never published. His fashion philosophy was populist and democratic:
Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they're horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It's mirroring exactly our times.
He wrote fashion criticism and published photo essays in Details, beginning with six pages in its first issue in March 1985 and rising to many more. He was part owner of the magazine for a time as well. His work there included an illustrated essay that showed similarities between the work of Isaac Mizrahi and earlier Geoffrey Beene designs, which Mizrahi called "unbelievably unfair and arbitrary". In an essay in Details in 1989, Cunningham was the first to apply the word "deconstructionism" to fashion. Designer Oscar de la Renta said: "More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It's the total scope of fashion in the life of New York." He made a career taking unexpected photographs of everyday people, socialites and fashion personalities, many of whom valued his company. According to David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor asked that Cunningham attend her 100th birthday party, the only member of the media invited.
For eight years beginning in 1968, Cunningham built a collection of vintage fashions and photographed Editta Sherman in vintage costumes using significant Manhattan buildings of the same period as the backdrop. Years later he explained, "We would collect all these wonderful dresses in thrift shops and at street fairs. There is a picture of two 1860 taffeta dresses, pre–Civil War–we paid $20 apiece. No one wanted this stuff. A Courrèges I think was $2. The kids were into mixing up hippie stuff, and I was just crazed for all the high fashion." The project grew to 1,800 locations and 500 outfits. In 1978, he published Facades, a collection of 128 of these photographs.
Bill Cunningham: On the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography
Fashion Climbing: A New York Life