Before Tommy Ton and Scott Schuman emerged on the fashion scene, there was Bill Cunningham.
Possessed of a gentle demeanor and an eye for style that he documents with a few snaps of his camera, octogenarian photographer Bill Cunningham has been a longtime fashion fixture and is considered the forefather of street style photography. "Fashion week is on the street - always has been, always will be,” he said in the 2010 documentary by Richard Press about his life and work, Bill Cunningham New York.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, the bright Cunningham dropped out of Harvard University to move to New York City, at first to work in advertising, and then to sell hats under the brand name ‘William J’. After completing his tour with the US Army in World War II, he returned and began writing as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, making great strides in fashion journalism. It was during this time that he began writing for Women’s Wear Daily as well, and – upon noticing the style of ordinary people walking on the streets – he picked up his camera and began taking pictures.
In 1978, The New York Times published a series of his impromptu street snaps, featuring actress Greta Garbo and man-about-town Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. It marked the first time a newspaper had published photographs of New Yorkers – socialites, models, and actresses – without their knowledge or express permission. His calmness and the way he captured these people in unexpected moments in their lives have made him and his work well-known in the years since. He has maintained his ‘On the Street’ photography column for well over a decade. The New Yorker referred to his work as “New York’s high-school yearbook, an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”
In 2010, interest in his work and legacy intensified when he became the subject of the documentary directed by Richard Press. Viewers learned that he lives in a Carnegie Hall studio-cum-apartment, spare and unadorned save for filing cabinets full of his work, much of which goes unpublished. His studio has no kitchen or private bath. Owing to the relationships he has cultivated with his subjects for years, many of whom are society figures or prominent editors, he is also a fixture on the New York uptown social scene as well. However, Cunningham is also noted for being an equal opportunity photographer – he once famously didn’t recognise Farrah Fawcett, as he does not own a television, and shoots ordinary people just as frequently as society figures.
“We all get dressed for Bill,” said Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, who Cunningham has been shooting for decades. “It's always one snap, two snaps. Or he ignores you, which is death.”