Bill Cunningham’s death on June 25th was partly such a shock because he seemed destined to withstand time itself. He still lived in a studio in Carnegie Hall for 60 years until being forced out 2010; he still prowled the corner of 57th street despite its transition from an art gallery haven to a hedge fund headquarters. At 88, he faithfully cycled around New York City every day with a camera in hand and only an ultramarine jacket to warn incoming traffic of his presence, perpetually in pursuit of a color, a pattern, or a pant length. He shot exclusively in film. He was New York City’s greatest living monument, and it seemed impossible that he would ever die.
His passing was also an occasion to reflect on his craft, his obsession and his life drive: street style. While not the first photographer to document everyday garb, he became the most famous, probably due to his singular vision. “...the difference for me,” he told the New York Times, “is I don’t see the people I photograph. All I see are clothes.” His portraits were thus devoid of vanity from his subjects, totally unposed, and many of them clandestinely snapped from the side or behind.
They were equally devoid of vanity from Cunningham himself. As a photographer, he seemed unconcerned by uneven framing or motion blurs. He was after more than the image itself, capturing a fleeting moment and embracing all of its imperfections. His philosophy allowed him to photograph galas and A-list events without getting consumed by them.
More than anything, his photographs represented a dialogue between fashion and the city. The changing times, and the not-so-changing times, were apparent in his body of work spanning half a century. He seemed fascinated by how our individual choices hold up to the realities of the day, snapping businessmen hopping over slush puddles in smart leather brogues, or a woman in a pair of electric green platform heels that were ill-suited for a rainstorm. To me, this conflict between practicality and impracticality is very New York - a hard acceptance of the current conditions, yet the determination to prevail against them, and Bill captured it perfectly.
I can’t help but think of how street style has evolved into its own animal, and how vapid it’s become by comparison. People dress for street style, with editorial hopefuls lining up outside of fashion shows where they’re not invited, posing eagerly for photographers. Bloggers post weekly round-ups of their daily outfits, all of which were styled with the expectation of being photographed, and showcased in professional-quality images (as a blogger myself, I can’t expect to be holier-than-thou on this, though I can at least recognize it for what is). But Bill Cunningham probably would have extracted some kind of truth in all of this, some understanding about our image-obsessed culture - and then photographed that meticulously-selected maxi skirt ballooning up in a sudden gust of wind.