“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. 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. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit."
Bill Cunningham 13th March 1929 – 25th June 2016
Cunningham would attend 15 – 16 parties and events per week doing what he does best, immortalising his subjects not for who they were but what they wore and how they wore it.
His eye was on “the” fashion with a discerning focus based on self-expression of individualistic style.
He once explained:
"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…”
Above left: Editta Sherman in front of Paris Theatre 1972 | Above right: Editta Sherman on the subway to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens 1972. These images featured in the book "Facades" published in 1978. The book was created in collaboration with Editta Sherman, a portrait photographer also knows as the "Duchess of Carnegie Hall". Together they set off photographing 200 years of fashion and architectural design in over 1800 manhattan locations. The collection of 500 outfits was gathered from thrift shops, street fairs and auctions.
As a fashion insider and one who had unfettered access to all areas including the secured VIP areas and behind the scenes where stories are often grittier, he kept an outsider’s profile and believed that this was the best way to get the best candid images of his subjects.
Cunningham was a very modest and uncomplicated individual who had this single-minded vision to document life, fashion...history in a sense.
His simplistic and stealthy approach allowed him to capture a moment in the time of one’s natural self-expression un-compromised by surprise or pretence.
Originally from Boston and born to a strict religious family he recounts feeling like the "black sheep of the family" due to his deep love of fashion even as a child.
In 1948 at the age of 19 dropping out of Harvard after one term, Cunningham moved to New York to live with “Aunt” and “Uncle” in Park Avenue.
Cunningham was taking odd jobs here and there and working in the advertising department under his “Uncle” at "Bonwit Teller" which was a luxury department store.
In later years recounting: "That’s why my family allowed me to come here (NY) and encouraged me to go into the business. I think they were worried I was becoming too interested in women’s dresses. But it’s been my hobby all my life. I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.”
Above: Bonwitt Teller Department store. The store no longer exists now the site of Trump Tower.
He set up his first millinery shop in the mid 50's at 52nd street between Madison and Park Ave. under the brand name "William J".
This led to his introduction to a few New York socialites and celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Kathrine Hepburn, Roberta Brooke Astor (or Mrs. Astor of the Influential New York Astor Family) to name a few.
During his early years in New York, he established one significant long lasting friendship with Jackie Kennedy and through the years became a close friend and confidante.
Above: Bill Cunningham in his Millinery studio on 52nd St. Also images of some of his creations feat. Marilyn Monroe. Far right image of Bill's infamous "Bathing Suit hat" featured in Life Magazine.
Soon after he was drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War and upon returning to NY in 1953 he reopened the store but also began writing as a journalist for Womens Wear Daily under the editor in chief John Fairchild.
That was short lived due to creative differences between both Bill and John.
He then worked for the Chicago Tribune under Elenor Nangle, making great strides in fashion journalism.
Above: Bill's "On the Street" column for The New York Times 1978
Below - Bill and celebrated fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez.
Cunningham recounts one night in 1966, “the illustrator Antonio Lopez took me to dinner in London with a photographer named David Montgomery. I told him I wanted to take some pictures. When David came to New York a few months later, he brought a little camera, an Olympus Pen-D half-frame. It cost about $35. He said, “Here, use it like a notebook.” And that was the real beginning…”
During the 80's and into the mid 90's he was a main contributor to Details Magazine prior to it being acquired by Conde Nast publication. Details gave Cunningham carte blanche and he photographed fashion shows, but he also took pictures of the audiences and New York’s party scene. Under Details original Editor in Chief the magazine covered avant garde fashion for both men and women and only in black and white. It was Under Conde Nast that it changed to a Mens fashion and lifestyle magazine.
Above: Excerpt from Details Magazine | Summer Issue 1982. Photo's and feature by Bill Cunningham
It is also interesting to note that all of Cunningham work with Details was unpaid as he refused payment. “I had too much fun doing it. If they pay you, they own you.”
After Condé Nast purchased the publication, the former Details owners Annie Flanders explained that Cunningham had a stake in the brand.
Cunningham recounts, “S.I. Newhouse was like, ‘Take this money. You don’t know when you’ll need it to retire,”
“I later took it, but I don’t know — I’m not good with money.”
(Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr., was the heir to Advance Publications that owns Conde Nast. S.I. Newhouse Jr. died Oct. 1st 2017)
Above: A recent "On the Street" by Bill Cunningham for The New York Times
Above: More recent images of Bill. Feat. Top left with famous Model and Actress Carmen Dell'Orefice. Top Right Bill photographing Anna Wintour who was a constant subject for Bill, photographing Anna on the streets and at events since she was a teenager.