Forget Scott Schuman or Tommy Ton, Bill Cunningham is the 80+yrs old original street style photographer. More than just a photographer, he is described by some as a historian of fashion in New York City.
The film documentary Bill Cunningham New York follows him through the streets of NYC & gives us an insight into his fascinating life.
Bill has a column with the New York Times entitled On The Street where he photographs people and fashions and reports on trends as he sees them from the streets.
Anna Wintour exclaims how herself & her fellow magazine editor friends are often shocked when a trend bypasses them and even the fashion designers themselves and is picked up by Bill through the photographs he takes on the street.
But the thing that stuck with me the most was that, in a modern world where we’re obsessed with celebrity, and certainly in the fashion world where being a celebrity endorsement can really make a designer’s business boom (see: The Kate Middleton effect), Bill really has no interest in celebrities and what they’re wearing. Nor is he obsessed with designer or expensive clothes.
A former milliner, he has an eye for design and structure. But what excites him and spurs him on to photograph people is the creativity in their sartorial choices. As he says in the film whilst choosing a photo of an unknown woman in a stylish dress over a photo of a celebrity in a designer gown “that’s not a model, that’s a private person that bought their own clothes”.
With the increase street style photography and whole blogs dedicated to them, it was inevitable that being papped by a well known street style photographer would become a mission for some. Prior to the recent fashion weeks I saw a few blogs detailing how to get noticed by the photographers. The main advice seemed to be to stick to a certain uniform du jour or be Alexa Chung.
Of course wearing head to toe Isabel Marant won’t always guarantee you a spot on the street style blogs and there will always be the Anna Dello Russo’s or Iris Apfel’s that don’t dress by trends or what’s “in” and simply stick their own veritable mishmash style. According to Bill “a lot of people have taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative”.
Whilst I still look to street style photos over magazines or runway trends for inspiration, what I find interesting about his comments and observations is that modern street style photography, or certainly street style blogs, seem to focus in on the same tired trends. Stylish they may be, but exciting and new? Most likely not. Sometimes you’ll often see the same person featured in more than 1 street style piece, out of thousands of people roaming the streets at any one time. Surely this demonstrates just how there is a specific “look” that is appreciated by street photographers. Not so much with Bill Cunningham.
He leads what some might see as a somewhat lonely life, living in a small apartment filled with filing cabinets of his work, with no bathroom or kitchen and his bed a simple plank of wood held up on crates. A very private man, even those closest to him don’t seem to know a whole lot about his background or family. And nor do they want to. It’s very reflective of his own view of the people that he photographs every day & his disinterest in celebrities or where people are from in the photographs that he takes.
There’s a few other interesting personalities featured in the documentary, aside from Anna Wintour and Iris Apfel, there’s his longtime neighbour & well-known artist Editta Sherman. Their nonchalant chats about Andy Warhol give a glimpse into a possible past life. Also featured was the very interesting former UN diplomat from Nepal, Shail Upadhya, who used to wear conservative suits during the day at work in the UN and outfits made from various materials, including his couch, at night.
As I constantly seem to go through a wardrobe panic and often spend hours obsessing over expensive items that I can’t afford, watching this made me appreciate fashion and style at it’s most fundamental. Aside from the obvious, that we wear clothes to protect our modesty, we wear clothes as an extension of who we are, or sometimes as armour to show who we want to be.
Here is a man who could wear clothes from probably every designer under the sun if he so wished, but instead he opts for a $20 janitor’s coat from a hardware department due to it’s functionality.
He tapes up his rain poncho rather than buying a new one.
And he photograph’s people because they look good in what they wear, rather than because of what they’re wearing.
I loved this film/documentary on a humanist level as a great insight into a fascinating person from an era gone-by, an era of camera film developing and manners. And an insight into being creative and having creative relationships with people who admire your work.
But it’s also made me appreciate more that some trends are just that, trends. A passing fad that mightn’t necessarily be flattering to everyone. So, can I finally hold my hands up high and say I think JC Lita’s look like orthopedic shoes for someone with a club foot? Or is that not very PC? Ah, send the PC brigade to me if need be, i’ll already be fighting off the rest of the fashion blogger brigade for speaking out against Lita’s!