The fashion world mourned the death of famous photographer Bill Cunningham at the age of 87 this month. A legend in fashion media circles, his portraits of real people wearing real fashion on the street of New York became a regular and most-loved section of The New York Times, where he worked for over 40 years.
A recipient of several photography awards, Bill was loved and cherished by the fashion fraternity as he cycled about town looking for fashionable people to immortalize with his lens. “We all dress for Bill,” said Anna Wintour, the famous editor of Vogue US, adding that the worst thing to happen to a New York fashionista was being ignored by Bill Cunningham.
Bill served in the US Army in the Korean War, and later became a milliner designing hats under the label William J. He then turned into a fashion writer, working for top New York dailies and magazines. In the 1970s, he began taking candid street style photos, which later went on to become his signature and indeed spawned a whole new genre of fashion journalism. Here’s what today’s fashion scribes can learn from him.
Be true to your calling: Bill was never interested in celebrity status or other people’s definition of ‘fashionable’. He believed in fashion democracy, and did not give extra points to star power. He was more interested in honest personal style rather than professionally styled red-carpet looks.
On winning France’s L’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres in 2008, he famously said, “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”
Don’t follow the crowd: Bill Cunningham once ignored French actress Catherine Deneuve even though other photographers were crowding around her to take her photos. “But she isn’t wearing anything interesting,” he explained. He wasn’t taken in by magazine-defined trends. For him, the fun was in documenting real-life style on the streets, how people actually wore their clothes, how they expressed themselves through them.
He stuck to his passion, and nothing else mattered.
Your reputation is more valuable than the money you earn: The fashion media is infamous for accepting gifts and perks in return for good reviews – who wouldn’t sell their soul for a Dior bag or a pair of Fendi sunglasses? But Bill Cunningham never fell for it. He would not accept free gifts, food or drink from the people he photographed. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he said.
He lived a frugal life and had a fuss-free lifestyle, a small home, and a single-lens reflex camera. “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive,” he said.
Inspiration is everywhere: Bill Cunningham did not believe that fashion runways were the birthplace of fashion. According to him, fashion was everywhere, and it was a mirror to its time. He said, “The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been. Always will be.”
Spending hours on the sidewalk, he would come up with full-page trend reports just based on his obvservation and clicks of street style.
Do what you love and love what you do: As a young man, Bill said he could never pay full attention to services in church because he was busy looking at women’s hats. He later made a profession of it. Till his dying day, he only ever did what he loved best – following fashion, on and off the streets of his favourite city New York.
Bill worked over four decades in his last job. He could have changed jobs for the money — he was, after all, one of the most sought-after photographers in the fashion industry. But he wasn’t chasing fame or fortune. He was only ever chasing a good picture.
Make your joy your job and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
Work it: Bill was famous for working despite all odds. Once, he broke his kneecap in a biking accident, and yet he covered a gala event using a cane. In another instance, while accepting an award in Paris, he photographed the audience, saying, “He who seeks beauty will find it.”
Fashion editor Paula Reed, who called Bill “a thorough gentleman”, recalls an incident when, due to rain, other photographers had huddled under shelter during a fashion week, but Bill didn’t stop. He was out there with his umbrella, doing his job, she narrated.
“You have to let the streets speak to you,” Bill said, describing how he stands on the streets of New York, day after day, looking for interesting fashion. “There are no short cuts.”
Keep it simple: Bill Cunningham never needed the paraphernalia that today’s fashion photographers usually demand before they sign up for an assignment. He had a personal uniform of black sneakers and a blue workman’s jacket that he wore daily, as he traversed the streets of New York on his bicycle, his only accessory being his camera. He never needed much to make his point.
Carve your own path: When Bill Cunningham began photographing real people on the streets of New York, there was no such thing as ‘street style’, and celebrities could not be photographed without their permission. With his singular passion for capturing fashionable moments, he sparked off a whole new field in fashion photography and journalism.
Instead of waving him off as paparazzi, celebrities craved to be photographed by him – and he wouldn’t relent unless he liked what they wore.
Your life is your message: Bill Cunningham was unique in his work and his vision. He stuck to what he did, day after day, and became so good at what he did, he was unbeatable. As martial arts expert Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bill mastered his art like no one else ever could.
Have a personal project: Your passion is more than your profession. Fashion journalists could take a leaf out of Bill Cunningham’s personal project which culminated in a book called ‘Facades’ published in 1978. For eight years (from 1968 to 1976), he worked with fellow photographer Editta Sherman on a series of photos of models in period costumes posing against historic sites of the same era. The collection of photos was later donated to the New York Historical Society.
You are more than your job. Aim to leave a legacy, not just a byline.