Known as the popularizer of street photography and fashion diaries, Bill Cunningham was a veteran favorite of the international fashion community. A firm believer of beauty in candid moments, he stayed true to his art form, until he succumbed to a stroke on 25th June 2016.
Here we chronicle his glittering career, and the contributions he made, both to fashion and to photography.
Entry Into The World Of Fashion
He began his career in the 50’s, after dropping out of Harvard. Inspired by the women at the church services he attended, he forayed into millinery. Under the name William J, he set up his showroom in a dilapidated building in New York. He worked two additional jobs in order to afford supplies for his hats, which grew popular amongst society women. He continued with the business until he was drafted for the Korean War, and resumed in 1953.
Foray Into Fashion News
Around the same time, he also found employment a Chez Ninon, an outlet specializing in replicas of designer clothing. He was offered a column in Women’s Wear Daily, in the hopes that he would provide juicy gossip about clients that frequented the store. However, he stayed true to his ethics, never divulging information that could cause scandal, and only focused on fashion news.
He then moved to writing for The Chicago Tribune. It was at this stint that he was introduced to photographer David Montgomery, who presented him his first camera. After that, there was no looking back.
Budding Career In Fashion Photography
While fashion magazines at the time were concerned with fashion labels and latest trends, Cunningham’s focus was on the clothing and how it was worn. “All I see are clothes. I’m only interested in people who look good. I’m looking for the stunners,” he confessed in a column in New York Times.
The shot that catapulted his career forward was clicked in 1978. Enamored by the cut of a coat he saw on the street, he captured a candid shot. So intent was he on the details that he did not realize the subject of his photography was actress Greta Garbo! That was his first work to be published in the New York Times.
His simple approach and candid style caught the attention of editors at New York Times and he was offered a regular photo column. Called On the Street, it was the predecessor of what is documented as “street style photos” in fashion blogs today.
Calling himself a “record keeper” more than a “collector”, he insisted that most of his work was for himself. The street was his studio of choice, for it was here that he could capture the true essence of fashion. Garbed in his trademark blue jacket, he would wait patiently on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th street, for that perfect shot of fashion clothes. There is now a petition to install a statue of him at the spot and rename it “Bill Cunningham Corner”.
He covered a range of eclectic subjects over the years. Infamously departing Oscar de la Renta’s couture show to capture anti-war protests, he had a knack for capturing images that would appeal to people. His other famous assignments included those of the gender fluid fashion at pride parades and hippie movements.
He insisted on keeping his work freelance, as that allowed him freedom to work as he pleased. A cycle accident in 1994 made him take up a permanent job at the New York Times for the benefits of health insurance. He regularly published columns every Sunday for 25 years, till he was hospitalized for ill-health in 2016.
Honors And Recognition
Besides his regular assignments, he also published a photo journal in 1978, called Facades, which showcased vintage costumes against the backdrop of New York buildings. He also contributed photo essays to Details magazine, chronicling the new trends in fashion. It was in one of these pieces that he coined the term “deconstructionism” for fashion.
His works were actively exhibited in a number of prestigious locations, including the New York Historical Society and Fashion Institute of Technology. He was conferred a number of honors, including being named a “living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. In 2011, he was the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Richard Press, something that took him eight years to agree.
Picture clothing – nytimes.com, idolmag.co.uk and missowl.com,