7 Ways Bill Cunningham Changed Street Style Photography
Fashion photography had traditionally been glamorous, glossy and beautiful, far away from the everyday. Cunningham made it unpretentious, with no frills.
Bill Cunningham was more than just a photographer with a bicycle who took shots of trendy people in New York. He was a fashion historian armed with a bicycle, and nothing could stop him from capturing street style—blizzards, below-zero weather, and rain were even better, he said. “People forget that you’re there photographing them,” he once said.
On February 14 in New York and February 21 in Los Angeles, a new documentary is coming to cinemas to celebrate Cunningham as of the most legendary fashion photographers to live. The Times of Bill Cunningham, directed by Mark Bozek, is a new documentary based on The New York Times photographer who was said to turn fashion photography into “cultural anthropology” over his 40 years as a photo columnist.
The film, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, looks at one never-seen-before interview with Cunningham from 1994, which chronicles his entire life in just over an hour, from being a milliner in France during the Korean War, to his relationship with Jackie Kennedy, living in the Carnegie Hall apartments, judging the style of high society ladies of New York, and why the best style is found on the streets.
Cunningham, whose memoir Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs, was released this past fall, has another film that was created about him in 2010 called Bill Cunningham New York. This one is entirely different and unearths an interview from 1994, where he is brought to tears. Until the film is released, here are seven ways that Cunningham changed fashion photography, one unassuming snapshot at a time.
He combined street photography with fashion documentation
Since he started out as a hat designer, Cunningham had an eye for design. He also loved fashionable people and would only photograph those whose style he admired. Since Cunningham only got into photography in 1967 when he was gifted a camera, it was an afterthought to his lifelong commitment to documenting fashion. As he says in the film: “I’m a fashion historian.”
He inspired street style bloggers
Today’s street style photographers who flood the sidewalks during fashion weeks in Paris, New York, Milan and London all stem from Cunningham. He had one goal: to see how everyday style is curated by everyday people on the streets of New York. Many will say that Cunningham inspired the era of Instagram influencers, as he was dressed by magazine editors, when not wearing secondhand garments from high profile friends.
He made fashion photography accessible
Fashion photography has traditionally been glamorous, glossy and beautiful, far away from the everyday (as David LaChapelle once said: “If you want reality, take the bus”). Photographers like Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon are some of the greatest fashion photographers, but what Cunningham did was make it unpretentious, no-frills. In one famous photo series, he showed how everyday women wore designer clothing and compared it to how models wore it on a runway.
He found trends that nobody else saw
From striped t-shirts to sunglasses, fanny packs, tote bags and even jogging pants, he was always keen to spot a trend in his weekly photo reports for The Times. As Anna Wintour says in the new film, he always saw things that the rest of the fashion journalists had overlooked or forgotten. In one scene, he spots men wearing t-shirts that have sunglasses on them, in another, he does a roundup of black heels in the summer. “Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life,” said Cunningham.
His street style archive is worth millions
His collection of photo negatives, which are archived by year, is worth over $1m today. It wasn’t created for the purpose of money, and in fact, he hated money. He famously ripped up paychecks from Details magazine, because he felt that limited his freedom. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do,” he said in this documentary, and in the other one, Bill Cunningham New York. It was a belief he held all his life.
He basically discovered Iris Apfel
Iris was a Palm Beach socialite when he would photograph her on the streets, mostly for fashion week. It was only after Cunningham photographed her that a documentary film on Apfel followed. She once said “Bill photographed me before anyone knew who I was,” and claims to have become a 94-year-old cover girl thanks to him. Today, part of her vintage clothing has its own wing in the fashion department of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which opened last fall.
He valued personal style
Cunningham once said in a documentary that he looks for personal style of how something is worn, be it a coat, shoes or even an umbrella. Not unlike some paparazzi photographers out on the streets, he tried to be invisible to his subjects and tried not to be obtrusive to what was happening. He never aimed to make fun of people’s style, but value all our differences—often shooting those who stood out. Cunningham believed that personal style triumphed expensive fashion labels. “It’s a ridiculous belief that money brings taste; it definitely doesn’t,” he once said. “As a matter of fact, it often merely allows one to enjoy bad taste with louder vulgarity.”
get 10% off for your first purchase