A simple man, with an incredible eye not just for style, or fashion, or photography for that matter, but for people. For the people on the streets going about their everyday lives, in a city that is quite literally brimming with life. In THE city, in New York City. A man with the ability to capture the interesting, the stories of humanity that we take with us everywhere we go in our hearts and our souls that affect us in many ways and make us who we are. The stories that the clothes we wear and the style we exude tell about us as people and as individuals. That man was Bill Cunningham and this is his story, a story of a man behind a camera.
For nearly forty years, Bill Cunningham captured every style and trend that was popular in both the 20th and 21st century, whilst riding his bicycle around the streets of New York from 1978 up until his devastating death in June 2016. He made his work his own photographing the people of New York City on the streets, at social events, and at major Fashion shows for New York Fashion Week and editing his work into a column with co-editor John Kurdewan for The New York Times called ‘On The Street’.
From scrunchies to snapbacks, stripes to spots, he inevitably and essentially gave birth to Street Style. Something that today is done by all, from giant fashion magazines like VOGUE to bloggers like Susie Bubble and even Instagram influencers all with the same idea: to capture and showcase a trend, a style, and a moment in time. But he didn’t just capture trends, he captured the very essence of who we are as individuals, our humanity, our personality, our souls. Because style tells a story of individualism and of emotion.
Without even knowing it, Bill made trends of his own that people wanted to read about and see within his column and he was rewarded and honored for his work throughout his life. He received several awards for his contribution, not only to the fashion industry but to the creative arts, including an award in 1983 from The Council of Fashion Designers of America for the outstanding photographer of the year. He also received the living landmark award from New York’s Landmarks Conservancy back in 2009 and in 2012 and received the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence (the invitation read “Come Dressed for Bill”).
“You can’t report to the public unless you’ve seen it all. People just go off and say what they think. Well, it isn’t really what I think, it’s what I feel” – Bill Cunningham
In 2012, Richard Press created a short film entitled ‘Bill Cunningham: New York‘, It gives an a wonderful insight into his personal and professional life, both behind and in front of the camera, from his work in previous magazines (both in & out of fashion) to his personal life in his younger years. It follows the everyday life of Bill as he shoots his photography on the streets, at parties, at social events and even at Paris Fashion Week. But I think for us, one of the things we loved the most about the film, and that made us collectively smile the most was the positivity and respect that every major part of the fashion industry has for Bill including Iris Apfel (who herself has had a documentary made about her style and her role as a fashion icon).
“I think that everyone who knows Bill and understands who he is and what he represents, I will always be thrilled to be photographed by Bill. I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill”. – Anna Wintour
But even after his death, his work continues to inspire everyone, both in and out of the fashion industry. The ability to capture a natural moment, without asking people to stop and ‘pose’ for the image. A moment in time captured forever for people to marvel over or be inspired by in different ways. A moment and an image that in one hundred years from now, people will look back on and be shocked, be inspired, or maybe just as we look back on the imagery and style from one hundred years in the past, may think to themselves “did people really dress like that?”. And that is the magic of the camera, the image and the man behind it.