“Legacy? I’m a worker in the factory; all we care about is today! A legacy… what a bunch of baloney.”
Last week, photographer Bill Cunningham’s posthumously compiled book was released and I immediately scooped up a copy. You should too!
Bill Cunningham was a prolific photographer who famously documented remarkably dressed but average people on the streets of New York across five decades. He didn’t believe in celebrity worship, acquisition of wealth or automated cameras! He simply sought beauty. And he joyously shared his findings with the world!
I was first charmed by Bill when I stumbled across a 2011 documentary about his life and work. I believe that “charmed” is precisely the correct word with which to describe most anyone’s appreciation for Bill Cunningham.
Though I admire how speedily and confidently he worked his all manual 35mm cameras, Bill’s photography isn’t exceptional by any technical measure. He had little reverence for composition and was by any account, somewhat hasty and unrefined in method. What is exceptional about Cunningham is his seemingly effortless tenacity, commitment to and consistency of simple values, perspectives and beliefs.
“The problem is I’m not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I’m too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I’m not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That’s all there is to it.”
I appreciate Bill’s ability to locate, and capture his subjects, if not artfully but graciously. This in itself is a tough job. The paparazzi are celebrity snipers. But Bill got close, photographed anyone without pretense and was a shining part of the city and culture that he loved to portray.
A well worn Nikon FM2 with a newer, non-matching 50mm in hand, an unassuming Bill Cunningham bicycled around NYC wearing a bright blue, French workman’s jacket, seeking the fabulous among the ordinary. One the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography is an honest and loving attempt to compile these daily and innumerable efforts.
“The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows. You find information for readers so they can visualize themselves.”
At first blush, one might miss the subtle wit in his work for its volume and near commonplace look. But Bill was about as deliberate a person who’s ever lived.
I read the book’s introduction and have spent quiet evenings for the last several days largely ignoring its remaining text, just indulging in the fascinating people-watching that Bill brought to us. Page by page, decade by decade, I imagine riding beside him, trying to stay out of his way and admiring how quickly, reflexively and methodically he works his little brassed Nikon; squarely concentrating on dazzling pumps, bold patterns, daring hemlines and brazen head-wear, only to break into the most comforting and innocent of smiles and greetings when noticed.
“I go to different places all the time. And I try to be as discreet as I can. My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way, too.”
Bill was a humanist in every sense, with a near monk-like lifestyle, he kowtowed not fortune or fame but a keenly coordinated ensemble.
“I don’t pay attention to celebrities. I don’t photograph them. They don’t dress so… interestingly. They have stylists. I prefer real women who have their own taste.”
There is something so basically peaceful and gentle about Bill that one can’t help but want to join his solitary hunt for heels. But his mission was just that, solitary. You just can’t draw too much attention to a man like this, else the mystique is ruined by the crowd. And as much as I could try to encapsulate and distill the essence of Bill with compelling quotes and second-hand anecdotes, even this thick new volume of his work admits to being only a heartfelt glimpse. His presence was so regular and welcomed that I don’t think that, even after his passing, I’ve visited New York City without a back-of-my-mind expectation, and wish, to see Bill breeze by on his Schwinn, looking for his next beautiful shot.
Thanks for reading!
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