Often we read descriptive words like legendary, or iconic, when we read about the loss of a talented and famous person in the news. This year, we’ve lost quite a few in the world of music; Bowie and Prince just to name two legends. And, while I’m a big fan of both and certainly was shocked at their deaths, I’d like to pay homage to someone who I’d call a legend in the world of photography. Bill Cunningham was 87 years old and he died this past Saturday.
Cunningham was an amazing photographer, known for his keen eye for fashion and his street photography. He worked almost 40 years for the New York Times chronicling the fashion on the streets of NYC. This is how the Times publisher described him in their 7-page tribute.
“His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met,” said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Times publisher and chairman. “We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
I enjoy his work, and enjoyed learning about Bill Cunningham in my reading and research of photographers over the years. One of the perks about teaching the History of Photography is that I get to research all kinds of wonderful and interesting people. One thing I learned about him is that he had access – the coveted access to celebrity – the thing that so many photographers, and young budding photographers yearn for. But, he wasn’t interested in celebrity. What made his images so interesting and unique is that everyone was a subject. He photographed the rich and poor and everyone in between, and people from all walks of life. Why? He was interested in their clothes. It was all about the fashion, and the way people dressed.
“Mr. Cunningham also resisted the trends of celebrity dressing. He had seen actresses in their fishtail dresses preening and posing before the phalanxes of photographers at ceremonies like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. They were poised. They looked pretty. Yet he simply could not muster enthusiasm for them.” – NY Times Tribute
We can really learn something from him. Just watch him work and observe his dedication to his craft, his love of the subject matter, his grace and poise. He can really teach us something about observation, paying attention to the details, and human nature.
“When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn – sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera – to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.” – Bill Cunningham
He loved fashion, why if you even read up on his personal history, you’ll find he was a milliner as a young man with a creative eye for design. We’ve lost a legend in the world of photography. If you want to know more about Bill Cunningham watch a wonderful documentary about his life and work called Bill Cunningham New York, it’s on Hulu and it is really darn good!
If you didn’t know who he was, I hope that you do now and enjoy looking through his work as much as I have.
Bill Cunningham 1929-2016, a legend.