Sometimes I worry about the superficialness of fashion and whether or not I should be spending my time on more ‘important’ things. But then today I watched the amazing movie Bill Cunningham New York. And I was amazed.
Here is a man who is so humble, so endearing and yet all that seems to be important to him is his work and fashion. It was more important than love, money or anything. As he says: ‘it’s all about the clothes”. So today I’m featuring a different kind of fashion style icon: 84 year old street photographer Bill Cunningham who currently works for the New York Times.
It is clear that he has many admirers. One of them is Anna Wintour, who says:
“we all get dressed for Bill….. or he ignores you, which is death”.
Bill can easily ignore you. He doesn’t care about celebrity, status or anything. If he doesn’t like the clothes, he will not photograph you.
She also says:
“I’m so amazed. We are sitting in the same room, but he sees something on the street or on the runway that completely missed all of us. And in six months time, that will be a trend”. And she is just one of the many personalities that make an appearance, all in awe of this man who has been photographing people on the streets since the 60s.
Why is he still so passionate about his work, even now when he is already over 80?
In his own words: “The hope that you see some marvelous, exotic bird of paradise, meaning a very elegant, strong woman or someone wearing something terrific”.
Bill prefers to photograph people when they are unguarded and natural: “When it rains it’s a whole different scene. When there is a blizard it’s the best time”.
“I like the streets to speak to me. In order for the streets to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is”.
His columns in the New York Times
Bill has 2 columns: One in which he shows how socialites, celebrities and other prominent people dress at the most spectacular parties and fundraisers and one where he shows the trends on the streets. He still shoots everything on film and is very involved on how it all appears on the page. The spread is usually themed around a particular theme.
“You have to do 3 things. You don’t get the most information from anyone. You have to photograph the collections. You have to photograph the women on the street who have bought the things and how they are wearing them and you have to go to the evening events. You can’t report to the public unless you have seen it all.”
He now lives in an apartment overlooking Central Park after having lived and being evacuated from a tiny studio in Carnegie Hall where he lived for many years and which is featured in the film. This studio is is full of filing cabinets, where he keeps negatives of every picture he has ever taken. The bathroom is in the hall and there is no need for a clothes cupboard as he only has very few. Bill goes everywhere on his bicycle and will ride from uptown to downtown to visit events. In the meantime you get a glimpse of New York life on the streets. It’s given me a real desire to discover New York on bicycle next time I visit!
He did a lot of work for Details magazine and spent days on fantastic photo spreads. All unpaid. Money does not seem to have any importance to Bill at all.
“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what do. That’s the key…”
When Details was finally sold to Conde Nast, Bill refused to cash his cheque. He even refuses to accept just a simple glass of water at events, as he does not want to be compromised in any way.
“It’s keeping you at a distance from what you’re doing, so you can be more objective” .
I am also amazed about his relaxed take on life. He seems to take each day as it comes. Not even his eviction from his studio in Carnegy Hill seemed to bother him much.
He also has very high ethical standards. He resigned from Women’s Wear Daily when the copy was changed on a spread he had made of women on the street wearing runway looks. Instead of admiring the creativity of the women wearing the looks, as he had intended, the magazine instead made fun of them. “The idea of evaluation of one image over another or one person over another was not something he subscribes to as a person” says Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the modern world
In addition to his regular columns, he now does a spoken review of ‘on the the street this week’ as well. Have a listen at one of the most recent episodes. The enthusiasm, joy and passion for fashion just shines through his words. Below is also a trailer of the film, so you will get an idea about the man himself.
Why we need fashion
Finally some words of wisdom:
“[I don't understand] why the world sometimes sees fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous, but the point is in fact that fashion ….. it’s the armour to survive the reality of every day life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It will be like doing away with civilisation”.
Bill Cunningham is an inspiration and if you want to be inspired too then I can assure you will be, after watching this marvellous film which you can buy at Amazon.
Do you agree with Bill? Why do you think we need fashion?