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News & Insight

Bill Cunningham | Iconic Photographer Gone at 87, More Enduring Than The Fashion He Photographed

By Kishore Sawh on June 26th 2016

The world of fashion is generally a loud one. The colors are loud; the characters; the buzz; even the thud of a Vogue magazine as it hits your side table is as significant as any Man Booker tome. Everything about fashion seems to be about yelling for attention, which is odd, given that beautiful things don’t need to scream for it. So why?

The quest to be individual in fashion, pure and simple, may be the ideal that we long for, but the reality is that fashion is big business, and you can’t scale a business making one-offs, and you’ve got to continually appeal, so it’s been celebritized and endorsement driven. The thing is, the endorsement has largely been in danger of overshadowing the fashion itself. Fashion photography also hasn’t been immune to this, but amidst it all there has been, oh for a half century, Bill Cunningham; a photographer who was in love with fashion and photography beyond the glitz. And now he’s gone.

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If you’ve picked up a fashion magazine or seen the New York Times in the last 40 years, you will have seen Bill, or his work, or his mention. He was to be found everywhere that matters in fashion simply for the love of it. Although Anna Wintour, EIC of Vogue, was a muse of his, and Bill could be seen at the glamorous parties of the famous and influential, Bill was perhaps most associated with his street photography work – particularly in NYC. It is there, during the everyday photographing the everyman/woman, that Cunningham defined street photography for fashion, and fashion journalism, focusing less on who was wearing what, and more on what they wore.

His amicable countenance, refusal to ‘sell out’, and his dedication made him something of a celebrity in his own right, landing him a staff photographer position at The Times, entry into any venue, his own weekly fashion digest online, and the adoration of the who’s-who of New York. Women would, after all, at the admission of Anna Wintour, dress to be seen by Bill.

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There’s a lot to learn from Bill if you’re a journalistic photographer, street photographer, fashion, or indeed any type of photographer, and he was open with his wisdom if you cared to listen or read between the lines. A glaring point to be made was that you’d never see Bill walking around with a 1Dx, or a Leica SL, but instead a small entry-level Nikon like a D3100, or D5300. While he started out with an Olympus PEN-D half-frame, and later a Nikon FM2 for ages, gear was never his focus.

Bill was that guy playing gramophone records in a Spotify world, and still making them relevant. He was a visual storyteller, yet full of column-worthy soundbites. He will be missed as we start this first week without him. Hopefully, New York’s women will still dress for Bill.

[REWIND: A Look Into The Life, Hustle, and Flow Of Street Style Photographers]

You can get an idea about Bill’s approach to photography and life from the award winning documentary on his life, Bill Cunningham New York, and take in some great advice from the clip below.

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Daniel Thullen

    A fashion photography icon! RIP Bill Cunningham.

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