Bill Cunningham: behind the lens
Simply put, photographer Bill Cunningham was a legendary force in the fashion industry. A rare breed of incredible talent, humility, and keen sense of style, Cunningham originated the concept of street style. A predecessor to the countless bloggers and websites devoted to chronicling fashion trends, the photographer urged us to take notice of the potency of street fashion with a shot of the reclusive screen siren, Greta Garbo in the 70’s.
Cunningham began his acclaimed career at the New York Times in the late 70’s, capturing personas from every echelon of society — the uptown society elite, the downtown punk kids and everyone in between. Debunking the myth that fashion only exists on the elite runways of Paris, Cunningham could even spot emerging trends and sartorial perfection before designers could. Examine his work and you will be transported to a specific time and place in our fashion history — a Cunningham photo was as much an homage to the past as it was a harbinger to the future.
An elusive figure for decades, Cunningham allowed his life to be portrayed on film in the brilliant 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Armed with his camera, bicycle, and signature cobalt blue blazer, Cunningham was a fixture on the streets of New York City. The innovator displayed an uncanny ability to immortalize a fashion moment in all its authenticity and move on to the next without the blink of an eye. Even Vogue powerhouse Anna Wintour once exclaimed, “We all get dressed for Bill.” While accepting the Officier de l’ordre des arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2008, Cunningham revealed the passion behind his photographs, saying, “I don’t work. I only know how to have fun everyday. It’s not work. Jean-Luc is a professional photographer…but for me…it’s just that I’ve always loved Paris. The people of Paris. The women of Paris…they are the subjects of the photographs. It’s not the photographer himself, it’s the ladies.”
For all his contributions to the fashion industry, Cunningham remained steadfast in the belief that his life was his work. Living in a modest studio in Carnegie Hall for most of his career, the artist literally lived and breathed his art. “I let the street speak to me; you have to stay on the street and let the street tell you.” Cunningham preserved his connection to the streets till his last days. A rich legacy that is sure to live on, we can all marvel at this once in a lifetime genius.