Spotlight: Bill Cunningham

Posted by David Ozanich — 13 Sep 2010

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I’ve been talking a bit about Fashion with a capitol “F” these last couple days which is the circumstance of New York Fashion Week occurring at the same time that I’ve begun blogging for JPG. Though often maligned for indulgence or shallowness, I’d posit that there is no industry (save perhaps the filmmaking) with a more symbiotic relationship with photography than Big Fashion. Image being king (or queen in this case), fashion relies on the photographer’s eye to communicate to the viewer such ideas as movement, color, form, function, design and, most importantly, personality.

Over the next two days I’d like to draw attention to two different documentarians of everyday sartorial style that are well worth checking out, even if you don’t know your Balenciaga from your Rag + Bone. It is the opinion of this blogger that fashion photography is not just a luxury pursuit limited to glossy magazines (or, at the other end of the spectrum, supermarket rags) but rather it can be a serious attempt to comment on, or just simply capture, the shifting moods of modern living.

Today I’m serving up Bill Cunningham, known for a weekly photo column called “On the Street” in the Sunday Styles section of the venerable New York Times. Well into his sunset years, the man presents a weekly collage of street style usually focused on angles such as what’s new in plaids, shoes, hats, and vests.

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What makes Bill Cunningham so charming, beyond his great eye for colorful people, is his winning narration of his photo slide shows (see links above), usually sprinkled liberally with his favorite descriptive “maahvelous”. Another favorite Bill-ism is that women rarely go to work. Instead they “go to business” which always strikes me as very refined and I appreciate that.

I can’t possibly do justice to all that is Mr. Cunningham and the deep joy he brings me every week. The New Yorker does a pretty good job, though, with its thorough profile of the man, the myth, the legend. Here’s one of the better quotes in which he speaks of his preferred roost at the corner of 58th Street and 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan:

“Look at the style you have here!” Cunningham said. “Stay here on Fifth Avenue and you see the whole world. Summertime—the vacationers and the Europeans. The holidays—everyone from the Midwest, the West, Japan. They’re all here, the whole world!”

Guy Trebay took a critical eye to Cunningham’s work in a 1996 article published in Art Forum:

The images of style Bill Cunningham publishes each Sunday in the New York Times are static and largely artless. Yet the people in his pictures are so engaged in imagining themselves being fashionable that the images are only partly about clothes. They are also about pretension and vanity and human frailty; still, they are optimistic pictures. They accumulate power through repetition and the photographer's regard for detail and a method that never diverges from formula. The formula is this: stand still and watch the passing parade.

He goes on to say:

There is little chance that future esthetes will find themselves poring over Cunningham's oeuvre, but archivists and cultural historians will probably bless his name.

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I happen to think the “largely artless” dig is a bit harsh, but then few people have accused Art Forum of being especially chummy. I do think that Trebay’s point brings into relief the interesting idea of photography as a method of recording existence or documenting “the passing parade.” I mean, look at the one above from 2003. That parade has officially PASSED! Cunningham, at his best, helps connect the “trends” reported from elite runways to the everyday sartorial wit found on backs of the “maahvelous” men and women just “going to business”.

Tomorrow: "The Sartorialist".

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