The Original Street Style Photographer: Bill Cunningham
April 18, 2011 1 Comment
Seems like every fashion event I go to, just about every other person I meet with camera in hand, is a self-professed style photographer/blogger. I mean, what are the prerequisites anyway? Go to your local B&H or Henry’s, pick up a digital SLR complete with speedlight and diffuser, throw it on mommy or daddy’s credit card and voilà – you walk in a regular schmo and walk out a street style photographer.
Long before The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton and the myriad of other professional and not-so-professional street style photographers – there was Bill. Octogenarian Bill Cunningham has been documenting street fashion on a manual 35mm film camera for Women’s Wear Daily, Soho News, Details, and the New York Times for over half a century. One of the first true street style photographers, Bill started his career in advertising, then quit his day job and under the name William J. began designing women’s hats. He was drafted to the US Army and after his tour of duty ended, he returned to his business. Eventually Bill went on to work as a fashion journalist for the Chicago Tribune. One day, a friend gave him a camera and told him to use it like a pen to document fashion. He’s gone on to live a life committed to his religion ever since. Two actually. He dedicates his Sunday mornings to the Catholic church and the rest of the week to the holy trinity of fashion photography: street fashion, runway fashion, and (evening) event fashion.
The F-List was nice enough to invite me to the exclusive Canadian preview screening of Richard Press’ documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. It’s already out in the USA and will be out at Cineplex Odeon Cinemas in Canada this Friday, April 22nd.
“My fascination with him has always gone beyond the photographs that have made him famous. Who he is as a person, how he’s chosen to live his life, and his almost religious dedication to his work—that was what inspired me to make the movie,” says the producer. Wearing a blue Parisian workman’s smock and occasionally a duct-taped raincoat, the documentary chronicles the tough egalitarian minimalist as he fearlessly navigates the busy streets of New York City on bicycle snapping up photos of stylish passers by. We get an inside view into his busy life, aggravatingly meticulous workflow, grueling schedule, and innocent cheery child-like character. Intermittent snippets of interview footage from the 1980s/90s prove that not much has changed with Bill either artistically or philosophically in the past 30 years.
On the surface, this is a charming story of an artist. America’s first real street style photographer. A steadfast purist devoted to his craft, unwilling to compromise artistic integrity for anyone or anything. Look deeper and you’ll find a tragedy. A man who’s conflicted by his sexuality, has failed to forge any deep meaningful relationships, or live a ‘life’ outside of his work. It is Bill’s fear of living that has driven him to spend the better part of his life hidden behind a lens. Vicariously, through others, one perfectly snapped moment at a time.