American photographer fascinated by the street culture and fashion of New York
Bill Cunningham photographed real people wearing real clothes on the streets of New York for 50 years. It was his obsession, addiction, way of life, and though he disparaged it as a deeply minor thing his art form; one that he practised daily until he suffered the stroke that led to his death, at the age of 87.
He found that true metier in London in 1966, where he was tentatively writing fashion copy for the Chicago Tribune, and met the photographer David Montgomery, who gave him a cheap Olympus Pen-D half-frame camera to use as a notebook. In Cunninghams hands, it became far more than that. The street speaks to me, he said; it was the missing ingredient in fashion journalism, his street very often being Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, where he began recording the personal style of passers-by, making visual connections between designers and wearers, environment and tribes, fashion and history.
He photographed a friend in antique outfits against ancient NY buildings (the results were published as a book, Facades, in 1978), but he also bolted from a couture show to see the new phenomenon of anti-war protesters outside, and turned his lens from the NY Easter parade to hippies in the park. The images were sold to the Daily News, and then the New York Times.
He thought celebrity, cost, luxury and labels were all phooey. Cunningham only registered garments and how well they were worn, like the beautifully cut shoulder of a plain nutria-fur coat on a striking old lady one winter day in 1978: it took a while to dawn on him that she was Greta Garbo. His New York Times editor, Arthur Gelb, asked him if he had any more such images. He did. That earned him his first half-page, which evolved into the regular spread On the Street, with its themed collages composed of individual stunners, and the Evening Hours slot for charity-scene social events.