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Home > Bill Cunningham – A Fashion Photographer (1929 – 2016)
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As the corner between 57th Street and 5th Avenue gets renamed Bill Cunningham’s Corner, we take a look back at the life of one of the most influential fashion photographers.

Bill Cunningham – A Fashion Photographer (1929 – 2016)

Born in 1929 from an Irish catholic family in Boston, his interest in Fashion can be traced back to his childhood when his parents took him to Church “I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats” he said. He went to Harvard but dropped out after only a few months. In ’48 he was drafted during the Korean War and was stationed in France, where he had his first exposure to French fashion.

When back in New York, Bill opened a workshop where he made hats under the name William J. and started taking photographs of the models wearing his pieces to catalogue his work.

hats

He also worked for Chez Ninon, a couture salon that sold copies of designs by Chanel, and Dior (his clients included Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O).

His clients encouraged him to write and this is how his journalistic career started, at the Chicago Tribune. He subsequently started taking snapshots of women on the street and in 1978 was noticed by the New York Times for a shot of Greta Garbo, with that begun his column On the Street which he dedicated his life to.

“Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty is the most expensive.”

He never joined the chorus, never wanted to be rich, never went after the famous who wore the big brands but preferred to go to fundraisers and parties where women wore clothes they didn’t receive for free in some publicity attempt.
“I am not fond of photographing women who borrow dresses. I prefer parties where women spend their own money and wear their own dresses…. When you spend your own money, you make a different choice.”

For him fashion was out on the streets and that is where he spent his life, he loved young people and their courage to wear whatever they wanted and create something revolutionary.
He was the first to recognise street fashion as a form of expression and the first one in documenting movements that came from the street and spread to the fashion world and not vice versa.

Cunningham wasn’t a technical photographer, didn’t care about the latest camera model or the most expensive one. Some people might think his photos are not relevant, but we disagree – his work was a comprehensive study of beauty on people, it went beyond photography, he can be considered an anthropologist of creativity.

billcunningham

He was an authority in the fashion world, even though remaining humble, but using his influence wisely to divert the attention on important issues like the gay community rights covering AIDS benefits and pride parades.

Cunningham could be spotted in the distance with his distinguished way of dressing, not fancy nor expensive, but recognisable and unique. He wore a work man’s blue jacket (for its many pockets), black jeans and trainers and could be always seen riding his bike (one of the 29 bikes he owned, 28 of them got stolen or damaged in accidents).

He was responsible for observing fashion evolution through the years in a completely unique way.
Bill Cunningham was given the Legion d’Honneur by the French government in 2008,and was declared a Living Landmark in 2009 by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

We highly recommend the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham – New York , it not only shows the relentlessness of Cunningham’s devotion to his work and to fashion, but also the sheer joy with which he navigated through life.

The corner where Bill used to be seen more often, between 57th Street and 5th Avenue, has now been renamed after him.

Bill Corner via ICP

Suggested: Bill Cunningham podcast for The New York Times

Photo credits: New Yorker
Bill Cunningham Corner via ICP

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