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Catching Fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham Doing What He Does Best

Originally Posted: August 26, 2009

Andrea Aurichio

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Today people still walk the streets of New York hoping Fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham will see them, admire their outfit, and take their picture. Photos by Andrea Aurichio

East Hampton - Bill Cunningham's usual stomping ground is the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in NYC. You could also see him on Manhattan's Upper East Side as he juggled his cameras and the handlebars of his bicycle looking to capture fashion on the streets of New York for the New York Times. He has been doing this for more than 50 years.

It is impossible to mention his name without prefacing it with the words, "the legendary photographer." He seems to shun publicity, preferring to stay behind the scenes and certainly behind the lens, focused on his work and his subjects. Cunningham came to East Hampton this month giving me a chance to take his picture. It wasn't easy to get him to come out from behind the camera. He is a man of few words and many pictures.

He came to town to cover an exhibit at Guild Hall featuring nine of America's most prominent fashion designers.

Bill Cunningham was working on East Hampton's Main Street on a steamy evening in the dog days of August. He came to town to cover an exhibit at Guild Hall featuring nine of America's most prominent fashion designers. He did not ride his bicycle. He took the Jitney and was planning on heading back to the city later in the evening after he got his shots.

When I asked him if he had a house in the Hamptons he shook his head indicating a no. "I live in the city," he said. He was wearing his standard working uniform consisting of a pair of khaki pants and a denim jacket with lots of pockets. He had two cameras around his neck forgoing the big rigs often carried by the high profile event photographers.

This "legendary" photographer, who changed the face of fashion in his own way by taking it to the streets, was in his element, snapping the guests as they arrived -- a giant among giants who have all made their own imprint on fashion over the last few decades. The designers pointed to the East End as their source for inspiration. Cunningham's inspiration is international.

He covers the Paris collections from the front rows but never neglects the scene on the street outside at these grand occasions. He will concentrate on shoes, or hats or raincoats depending on the weather. He loves to see New Yorkers wade through puddles in expensive shoes. A good snowstorm brings out the best in him as he hits the street to check out the fashion trends created by foul weather as New Yorkers don their down coats and their heavy boots. Out come the fur hats, the ear-muffs and the hand-knit scarves and out-sized mittens as fashion and function merge forming the colorful street scenes that make Cunningham's column aptly titled, "On the Street" come alive.

Cunningham is the first to point out that street photography is nothing new, especially when it comes to fashion.


"I'm here to work," Cunningham said when I asked if I could take his picture. He relented when I told him I was a fan. Then he gave me some advice. "There are bigger fish to fry here," he said referring to the presence of the some of America's top designers including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Vera Wang and Ralph Lauren, among others. "I'm more interested in you," I said. "I have been reading your column for years. I love it." Cunningham shrugged and smiled slightly, not seeming to care much about my enthusiasm.

Everyone knew Bill and Bill knew everyone as he quietly made the rounds. "You'll have to excuse me," he said, "I have to think and work."

"I'll just follow you around," I said, thinking I was taking a page from his book. "It would be better if you didn't," he said. So I stayed away hovering at a respectful distance that would not interfere with Cunningham's work. Of course the event would attract his attention. Bill Cunningham lives for fashion.

"I always had an enormous interest," he said in one of the few interviews he has granted over the years. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion. He can tell you what designer made a dress and in what year that dress was made when he spots it on the street.

This "legendary" photographer, who changed the face of fashion in his own way by taking it to the streets, was in his element, snapping the guests as they arrived.

A Serendipitous Beginning
In the early 1960s Cunningham set up a hat shop on Jobs Lane in Southampton. As the story goes, often told by fashion insiders who seem to know a few things about the elusive Cunningham, his shop featured a store window that contained a straw hat that was as big as a beach umbrella. He lived in back of the store.

He had headed to New York in 1948 leaving his home town of Boston after spending a semester at Harvard at the age of 19. At first he stayed with his aunt and uncle, then he went out on his own. As a resourceful young man he looked for a place to live in the big city by wandering around looking at buildings searching for empty windows with the hope of finding a room. It worked. He found a place on 52nd Street between Madison and Park Avenues and started making hats under his own label "William J." in his walk-up shop that also served as his home.

His designs quickly attracted the attention of high powered fashion editors and designers. "I'm almost deaf, and I am a little blind in one eye," Cunningham said to Betsy Johnson and her sister Sally as we sat on a bench in front of Guild Hall, "so the New York Times hired me."

That's showmanship folks. Cunningham had been around fashion for years as a reporter before he signed on at the Times and took fashion photography to another level almost accidentally. He was staking out the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street when he saw a woman walk by in coat with a distinctive shoulder. He started taking pictures. He walked into the office on a December morning in 1978, showed the pictures to Mimi Sheraton, the paper's restaurant critic at the time, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Cunningham relates that day in "Bill on Bill," an article he wrote for the Times in 2002. Sheraton stopped typing and took the photographs to Times Metro Editor Arthur Gelb. Minutes later a decision was made to run the shots. Cunningham's candid photo of Garbo marked the first time the New York Times ran a picture of a celebrity without asking their permission.

Cunningham had also snapped Farrah Fawcett without realizing who she was. He did not have a television and rarely went to the movies. "My whole thing is to be invisible," Cunningham has commented. "You get better pictures that way."

Cunningham is the first to point out that street photography is nothing new, especially when it comes to fashion. He says he is not a good photographer, "too shy, not aggressive enough". He calls himself a reporter and does not consider himself an artist. He began taking pictures of people with an eye towards their attire as a child when he traveled to ski resorts in New Hampshire. Cunningham started taking pictures of people on the streets in New York City during World War II when he used a "little box Brownie."

Cunningham had been around fashion for years as a reporter before he signed on at the Times and took fashion photography to another level almost accidentally.


In 1966, photographer David Montgomery gave him an Olympus Pen-D half-frame. "That was the real beginning," Cunningham related in 'Bill on Bill.'" Cunningham prefers a picture that tells the story over a picture that may be more technically correct in photographic terms. He shoots in profile or head on. His focus is sharp.

"It is a lovely art form to see beautifully dressed people," Cunningham said in a recent video that captured the camera shy photographer in a rare in depth interview. He adores what he calls "full regalia" dressing with "heavy artillery jewelry." He loves it all. His work is his passion. In his imposing yet quiet way, Cunningham hits the streets to provide us with a reflection of who we are and how fashion reflects our life and times.

No matter what is going on in the world or what the lead story may be in the New York Times, for years, the first thing I reached for was the Sunday Style Section so I could see what people were wearing in Cunningham's column. Now, thanks to the wonders of technology, I get to see his pictures on line, with his own voice-over commentary accompanying his always dazzling slide shows.

"This one never gives up," he said as he pointed me out to a group that had gathered around him on the sidewalk as he took a break. "Give it rest," said the man who never stops in his relentless pursuit of fashion on the streets as I lifted my camera to take another shot.




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Guest (RA) from EAST HAMPTON says::
Great- terrific writer reports on great photographer- winning combo!
Sep 1, 2009 11:06 am

 

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