Remembering Street Style Inventor Bill Cunningham through His Early Photographs
Amid bustling vernissage crowds at an art fair at New York’s Park Avenue Armory last winter, a wiry photographer clad in a simple blue French worker’s jacket emerged in a center aisle and trained his lens on an installation by Barry Le Va. At once, surrounding art world players and patrons took pause from their conversations and cocktails to admire the legendary New York Times photographer, silently willing him to spin around and photograph them next. Soon after, Bill Cunningham could be seen hopping on his Schwinn bicycle, a 35-millimeter Nikon swung across his body as he swiftly proceeded up Park Avenue. Such a scenario could have been witnessed on countless occasions in New York over the past four decades—at fashion shows, events destined for the society pages, and certain Midtown streets, often the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Cunningham died on Saturday, at the age of 87, but the impact of his life’s work lives on through the tradition of fashion photography—where street style meets cultural anthropology—that he originated decades ago. In the wake of his death, no end of anecdotes have surfaced remembering chance (and not-so-chance; he was frequently sought-after) encounters with his viewfinder. Cunningham was known for a pioneering, no-fuss brand of street fashion photography that candidly captured what New Yorkers were actually wearing—the good and the bad—from unsuspecting pedestrians to the likes of Iris Apfel and Anna Wintour. (“We all dress for Bill,” the Vogue Editor in Chief famously said in 2002.)
One might trace the beginnings of street style photography as we know it today back to 1978, when Cunningham unknowingly snapped a series of photographs of Hollywood icon Greta Garbo crossing the street, drawn to the elegant cut of her fur coat. The photograph helped launch the photographer’s regular column “On the Street,” a touchstone for fashion trends that continued through this June, which was inspired by sidewalks rather than runways, and has doubtlessly influenced generations of photographers since.
Today, in the age of fashion blogs and Instagram, street style is an ever-flourishing genre of fashion photography, bolstered by individuals like Scott Schuman, a.k.a. The Sartorialist, who has been capturing sharply suited passersby on his successful blog since 2005, and Phil Oh, who keeps tabs on the streets for Vogue, in addition to his own blog, Street Peeper. “RIP Bill Cunningham. An inspiration in his work and commitment to photography and fashion,” Schuman wrote on Monday morning. “I always loved sitting across or near Bill Cunningham at a fashion show. If it was a more dramatic show like Viktor & Rolf he would look like a kid in a candy store!” On street corners and runway sidelines now dotted with a new generation of camera- and iPhone-wielding journalists and fashion bloggers, Cunningham’s influence has no doubt been prominent.
But beyond simply documenting the sartorial compulsions of New York, Cunningham captured the zeitgeist, time and again. “I think fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever,” he wrote in a 2002 article for the New York Times. “I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.” The same can be said of the immense body of work Cunningham leaves behind.
Here, we remember Cunningham through a series of early staged photographs that he took of friend and fellow photographer Editta Sherman. These works, which were shown in a 2014 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, are as much celebrations of clothing and odes to New York as examples of the joy and vitality that Cunningham brought to each image.