Watched a documentary about Bill Cunningham recently. Amazing guy with a boundless love for fashion and photography
Born in Boston, Cunningham dropped out of Harvard University in 1948 and moved to New York City, where he initially worked in advertising. Not long after, he quit his job and struck out on his own, making hats under the name “William J.” This business folded when he was drafted. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he returned to New York and started writing for the Chicago Tribune.
During his years as a writer he contributed significantly to fashion journalism, introducing American audiences to Azzedine Alaïa and Jean-Paul Gaultier. While working at the Tribune and at Women’s Wear Daily he began taking photographs of fashion on the streets of New York. After taking a chance photograph of Greta Garbo, he published a group of impromptu pictures in the Times in December 1978, which soon became a regular series. His editor, Arthur Gelb, has called these photographs “a turning point for the Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission.”
Cunningham photographs people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan every day, focusing on their genuine usage of clothing to express personal style. He is known not to overly photograph celebrities (like a paparazzi would) or people that use fame to showcase clothing they didn’t originally pick themselves (sponsored, free clothing). Most of his pictures, he has said, are never published. His personal independence philosophy was cited by CNN: “You see if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.” Designer Oscar de la Renta has said, “More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.” He has made a career taking unexpected photographs of everyday people, socialites and fashion personalities, many of whom value his company. According to David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor asked that Cunningham attend her 100th birthday party, the only member of the media invited.
In 2008 he was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
In 2010, filmmaker Richard Press and Philip Gefter of The Times produced Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about Cunningham. The film was released on March 16, 2011. It shows Cunningham traveling through Manhattan by bicycle and living in a tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building. The apartment has no closet, kitchen, or private bathroom, and is filled with filing cabinets and boxes of his photographs. The documentary also details his philosophy on fashion, art, and photography, as well as observes his interactions with his subjects while taking photos.
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