CPAC celebrates life of iconic fashion photographer

The exhibit at CPAC highlights Cunningham’s storied career. | Photo Credit: Bobby Jones and The New York Times

A retrospective of Bill Cunningham

William John “Bill” Cunningham was a Harvard University dropout with a thick Boston accent and a penchant for those who dressed remarkably. On Jan. 12, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center opened their latest exhibit, “On the Street With Bill Cunningham,” in collaboration with The New York Times. The exhibit features and celebrates the career of the revered fashion photographer who died at the age of 87 in 2016. Along with audio clips of Cunningham speaking about his work, the CPAC welcomed special guest Tiina Loite, a photo editor who worked closely with Cunningham in The New York Times’ style section.

Cunningham was best-known for taking candid photographs of absurdly stylish women on the streets of New York, ultimately emphasizing “street style” fashion in his captures. The photographer, a creature of habit, could be easily recognized on the streets of the bustling city, as he always donned black sneakers and a vibrant blue workman’s jacket. Cameras were his only accessories, and he sped around the city on a bicycle looking for his next subject.

The exhibit at CPAC highlights Cunningham’s storied career. | Photo Credit: Bobby Jones and The New York Times

“He would say to me: ‘I’m not a photographer. I am a columnist who writes with pictures,” Loite said. “It’s easy to say ‘Bill Cunningham photographer.’ But that’s not enough of a description of Bill. What he did was a complete different iteration of the job.”

Cunningham was a completely self-taught photographer. He took numerous photos from childhood to adulthood, anything from ski resorts to parties; a camera was never far from his hands. Cunningham also took candid shots during World War II with a cheap “Brownie” box camera in the streets of Paris, which introduced him to the bold fashions outside of the United States. 

Cunningham’s attraction to the world of fashion began in Sunday church. He paid far more attention to the hats that the women wore than he did the actual services. Cunningham even began his career in fashion as a women’s hat designer under the name of “William J” before transitioning to writing about women’s fashion in numerous publications. It was only when his candid photograph of Greta Garbo caught the attention of The New York Times in 1978 that he began to concentrate all of his creativity into photography. His photograph of Garbo captured a heedless and accessible component of the Swedish-born actress; in a large fur coat, oversized sunglasses, and a wool hat, she looks approachable, even gentle. Cunningham’s concoction of journalism and fashion photography introduced America to renowned fashion designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia­–designers who are the crux of contemporary fashion.

It was during this time that Cunningham’s street-style photographs, featuring women with wild blue hair or dressing in bold neon colors with jagged shapes, became a regular section in The New York Times titled, “On the Street.” Cunningham was the first trendspotter—a “fashion anthropologist,” so to speak—before fashion blogs and Instagram. The iconic photographer had witnessed the rise of denim in the 1980s to the low-riding jeans in the 1990s, using his camera to document fashion history.  Cunningham’s unguarded snapshots of the boldly dressed introduced an unusual outlook on fashion and those who wore it. Cunningham didn’t take photos of celebrities wearing the latest designer fashions, but instead focused on unknown individuals that broke the mold of contemporary fashion, which added to his uniqueness.

“I never bothered with celebrities unless they were wearing something interesting,” Cunningham wrote in his essay for The New York Times. For Cunningham, style did not depend on whether or not someone was wearing a Birkin bag or a fur coat, despite those items being staples of  high society. True fashion was about expressing oneself as well as projecting someone’s personality with what they wear.

“When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn—sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed,” Cunningham said. “At parties it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera—to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands.”

Street photography was by no means an original concept when Cunningham started photographing the sidewalks of New York. Brasai and Henri Cartier Bresson were taking snapshots of everyday life long before Cunningham. But the fashion icon took street photography and fashion to a different realm. Often dubbed the inventor of fashion photography, he was not interested in the people that wore the clothes as much as he was interested in the fashions they wore.

His impact on New York and his death led to the city naming streets after the photographer, his friends advocating for a permanent memorial in the city, among many other tributes, with one even being placed at Carnegie Hall. He was a pioneer of the idea that fashion did not merely exist in shops or on celebrities but instead lived in the streets. After his death, PageSix reported that all of the fashionistas were skipping New York City’s biggest events because Cunningham wasn’t there. His absence left holes in the fashion world not only because the honor to be photographed by the legendary photographer was gone, but because he was a landmark in the New York fashion scene.

The difference between street photographers like Cunningham and the regular paparazzo is that Cunningham captured personality rather than status. He was not interested in “gotcha” moments or photographing celebrities; Cunningham was genuinely invested in fashion. He could illustrate an entire individual just by what they were wearing. Cunningham was and continues to be a fixture of authenticity in a world where society is  obsessed with wealth and fame.

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