Bill Cunningham is one of my photographic heroes so it was a sad moment when I learned of his passing. My wife and I were driving across the U.S. early this week when she found an article on her iPhone that Bill Cunningham had died. I made a mental note to write a tribute to Bill when we got back home.
“It’s not work, it’s pleasure. That’s why I feel so guilty. Everybody else does work — I have too much fun.” – Bill Cunningham
What impresses me the most is Bill Cunnigham the person. If you spend time with him via the documentary film and his videos, you will soon figure out why I love him. And why NYC loves him. When I need photographic inspiration, one of the videos I watch is Bill Cunnigham New York, an award winning documentary film. Bill Cunningham’s joy, energy, kindness, humility, love of life, love of photography, and commitment to his craft have made me a better photographer.
Cunningham photographed the rich and famous and fashion forward at New York City’s most elite events and parties, sometimes as many as 20 per week, but he really loved to photograph people walking the streets of New York.
“I go out every day. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I’m on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.” – Bill Cunningham
Every day Bill went out on his bicycle (he went through 30 bicycles, which he wore out or lost in traffic accidents) to ride the streets of Manhattan, wearing his iconic blue jacket, khaki slacks and black sneakers. He photographed anything and everything that caught his eye. On Friday he would go to the New York Times to put together his spread for the Sunday Times and work on his “On The Street” weekly video. He loved what he did and had amazing energy for a man who worked up to the end of his life.
He was always kind. On one occasion years ago he put together photos and text for a fashion article to go in the magazine he worked for at the time. The magazine changed his text without his knowledge and made fun of the people in the photos. The article went out with his byline. He was deeply wounded for the people who had been criticized in the article. Cunningham would never say anything insulting or unkind about the people he photographed. He quit his job at the magazine.
“The problem is I’m not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I’m too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I’m not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That’s all there is to it.” – Bill Cunningham
Fortunately for Bill, he eventually ended up with a job at the New York Times. His Sunday full page fashion spread was one of the most popular features. In the documentary movie about him you will see how he put together his page and how particular he was about the layout.
He lived in a tiny apartment that was filled (I kid you not) with filing cabinets of his photographs and shelves of photography books. There was barely room to turn around. There was no kitchen or bathroom (he used a bathroom down the hall from his apartment) and he always ate out, usually cheaply.
If you love photography (and even if you don’t), I highly recommend you find Bill Cunningham New York on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Bill Cunningham was one of a kind. He made the world a better place.
Bill Cunningham Quotes
“The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been, and always will be.”
“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”
“I go out every day. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I’m on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.”
“I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.”
“I’m a zero. I’m a worker in the factory. I’m like you and everybody else. I’m still enjoying what I do.”
“I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”
“It’s not work, it’s pleasure. That’s why I feel so guilty. Everybody else does work — I have too much fun.”
“The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
“The problem is I’m not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I’m too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I’m not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That’s all there is to it.”
“I started photographing people on the street during World War II. I used a little box Brownie. Nothing too expensive.”
IMDb: Bill Cunningham New York – Watch a 2 minute trailer of this much praised documentary.