Getting Dressed to Kill for Bill – Bill Cunningham New York

New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham takes photos during the Naeem Khan Spring/Summer 2013 collection show at New York Fashion Week

A photograph is life frozen in time, preserved for eternity as a fleeting moment.  It conveys in a way, that no words can, our sense of purpose.  It can also isolate the truth, expose the realities of our time and offer us a different perspective on life and art.

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 said Bill Cunningham.

Over the years those who got ‘dressed to kill’ especially for Bill, would not agree.

You would hardly call New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham a fashion statement in himself, even though capturing fashion was his passion. His modest demeanor was helped by the utilitarian blue jacket he wore, which turned out to be the garb of Parisian street cleaners he used to buy in bulk.

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham captured at the Givenchy show in New York Fashion Week 2016

Celebrating life, capturing society and recording cultural development is what photographer Bill Cunningham was all about. A continuing presence on the streets of New York for nigh on half a century, Bill Cunningham on his bicycle with camera in hand was a regular daily vision from Carnegie Hall to Madison Avenue.

He was kept busy shooting fashion and the style of those who loved the latest look or fabulous fad. He sought a connection with people, places and communities, documenting his subjects with dedicated passion.

Now departed this life on June 25, 2016 the late great Bill Cunningham (1929-2016) it was wonderful that in recent years he was immortalized on his favourite medium film, with a superb documentary about his craft and art form, which has been released on video.

If you didn’t capture it down at the local art house cinema you can hop onto iTunes and download and view one of the human interest gem documentaries of the last decade.

New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham takes photos during the Naeem Khan Spring/Summer 2013 collection show at New York Fashion WeekBill Cunningham was out there daily snapping life’s colourful characters, socialites, dandies, birds of paradise, fashionistas and the fabulously dressed, while searching for that perfect shot. He lit up so many people’s lives, while in the main ignoring celebrities on guest lists, preferring to chronicle the more ‘commonplace. Like Andy Warhol, he elevated them as icons of style in his fashion page in the New York Times ‘On the Street’.

Drawing with light is such a wonderful definition of the word photography, which comes from the French photographie, in its turn derived from the Greek words for light and to draw.

As the documentary revealed Bill used a camera with film to draw out his subjects, which has been a significant factor in the evolution of photography as an art form until the present day.

Bill Cunningham was quite a character. At the beginning of the film we find out he was one of the last of the artists living in Carnegie Hall, which was built by a philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, two blocks south of Central Park.

As well as containing archives and a museum studios above the hall spaces for artists working in the field of music, drama and dance including architects, playwrights, photographers, painters, literary agents and so forth were provided. In 2007 the Carnegie Hall Corporation announced they were evicting the remaining 33 studio residents, many of whom had been living there since the 1950’s (including Bill) because they wanted to re-purpose the space.

Throughout our journey with Bill in a charming poignant documentary about his life’s work and his life, we also travel with him as his friends help him to find a new place to be, at an age where change of this sort can be life-threatening.

Eventually he finds a wonderful art deco apartment with a view of Central Park where they help him to move and settle. It’s touching and very emotional as he comes to terms that his life will be just a little easier in that he won’t have to ride his bicycle so far any more.

While we can now only capture his life in reflection, the documentary remains and tells the story about how and why he became a living national treasure on the streets of one of the world’s most exciting cities.

Bill and FriendsEach beautifully handmade gelatin silver photograph Bill has shot is on file and so now will become a significant archive for the city of New York.

The images captured were meant to portray the mood or the action at the moment of capture, taking you beyond the lens into a place where harmony and unity is brought about by a timeless image of beauty or boldness.

Subjects were captured with only a fleeting moment to think about, or reflect on their truth or, chosen and constructed carefully, with integrity, to invite and provoke a response. The result is a diverse, creative and compelling set of images that stimulate the senses, influencing both our ideas and emotions.

Today in order to continue to assimilate the visual and photographic possibilities provided by digital technology and digital processes an art of adjustment will be required. If younger photographers are half as adept at Bill Cunningham at New York in embracing change, then the art of photography will be around for some time.

If you are sensitive to art, then it will be sure to shed new light on your life as a one on one experience.

Photography has been one of my favourite mediums in modern art since I was a child and was given my first box brownie.

While today digital media has made shooting pictures easy for everyone, it takes a genius with an eye and a lens like Bill Cunningham to capture it so succinctly and, as it is.

Vale Bill Cunningham, rest in peace knowing you left a significant legacy that proves you were a living national treasure of your times…x

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-updated June 25, 2016


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