I met him once when I was in New York – ok straight away thats a lie, or certainly an exaggeration. I was in New York, I saw him, I went over, not really to speak to him, cause I am not like that, but he saw me loafing about behind him and probably thought I was going to pinch his camera, so smiled at me in a ‘I have seen you, now leave me alone’ kind of way. I clearly wasn’t well dressed enough to warrant a click of his lens, and I am not great a chit chat, so I nodded back, smiled and wandered off.
By this stage he was already famous. Not movie/ documentary famous yet, but the sheer length of time he had been working on the New York Times had made him famous, and blogs and camera phones had seen him copied hundreds, thousands, millions of times in the way his NYT page was constructed. This street fashion photography whereby styles are spotted on the street rather than the catwalk, is everywhere now. People just click on their phone and upload to their blog – little discernment, greater proliferation – I say this fully aware of where I am writing it, but doesn’t every idiot have a blog, and no one to read them.
Cunningham was a Milliner. Interrupted by the war, he comes back and starts doing some journalistic work for friends, which leads to him taking pictures, yada, yada, he has a page in the NYT for 40 years.
His photography is of a type. Its functional and candid. Whats lovely about this guy is that you can ignore the ‘camera as a tool’ malarky, you can actually ignore the photography altogether. You get the real sense that its the dress is the thing – and the best way to show you the dress is the picture. If he could show you another way, he would be cool with that – but he can’t, so here is a picture. You might not want to be a fashion photographer, and you might prefer to be a street photographer – but this documentary gives you a real sense of a working, jobbing photographer. He really is a grafter, and irrespective of the quality of the images (which is not really the focus of this documentary) his commitment to documenting fashion is extraordinary. He lives in a room surrounded by negatives, works from morning to night, doesn’t really eat – its a little bit crazy.
People want to be street photographers it seems, and thats very nice – so my advice is to watch this guy work. It must be difficult to find a corner to work on in New York that is free of street photographers – it is hard enough in Dublin – but the industriousness of this guy, his commitment (which I see in all the major photographers I get the opportunity to see) is remarkable. When I do any street photography now, I have a small camera and find myself walking and moving like Bill Cunningham. He drifts in and out of peoples lives, not causing much of a ripple – click and back out again. We see him at any parties, and he operates in a similar way. People really like him, he engages with them very well, then he moves away. The picture, or to define it further, the content of the picture is the thing. We should probably all be considering that in our images.