June 25th 2016 saw the passing of Bill Cunningham, a true gentleman and, in my eyes, the pioneer of street style photography.
Before bloggers, The Sartorialist and Advanced Street Style, Bill was there casting a discerning eye over the citizens of New York and their fashionable faddisms.
Blending into the city streetscape was an unassuming man travelling through Manhattan by push bike, wearing his low key uniform of a blue workman’s jacket, quietly snapping away.
But his legacy is anything but subtle, unlike the man himself. Cunningham became a celebrity himself just by doing what came naturally to him, being a fashion voyeur.
To quote the late designer extraordinaire, Oscar de la Renta “ More than anyone else in the city, he has a whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.” And de la Renta was correct.
Imagine zipping around town camera in hand, stopping when the mood strikes or the shot is right.
Cunningham understatedly dressed blended into the background beautifully and took full advantage of that fact. Although important people within the world of fashion such as Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, knew him well.
An interesting fact is that most of his pictures were never sold or published. He said “If you don’t take, they can’t tell you what to do”, which is so true.
This, I believe, gave him the freedom to shoot whatever he chose and he was beholden to no-one, a rare pleasure to have in the creative world.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 13 1929, he stated “his interest in fashion began in church. I could never concentrate on Sunday church because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.”
And he was so fascinated by those hats, that he became a milliner.
He always had an eye for detail.
Never one to mince words, he was upfront with his thoughts and scrupulous in ideals.
“I am not fond of photographing women who borrow dresses. I prefer parties where women spend their own money and wear their own dresses…when you spend your own money you make different choices.”
I love that he was so clear in his vision and pure in his style. I believe this is why he was so respected in his field, by his peers, fashion followers and magazine mavens who surely admired his warm and generous spirit.
Immortalised in the 2011 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” he will forever be remembered as a gentle soul, one who lived humbly in a tiny apartment with a share bathroom and enjoyed snapping quietly away, while embodying a sense of truth to his art form – photography. And in the fickle world of fashion, that is a great feat.
Vale a brilliant talent, working in one of my favourite mediums in all art.
Bill Cunningham will be sorely missed in a world that can be flighty and flippant. He saw through those who were phoney, becoming a master of his craft, one who majored in recognising and capturing true purity of style.
Jo Bayley, Fashion Editor, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016