The term fashion photographer typically brings to mind a specialist who works on assignment for advertisements or editorials and who brings to each shoot enough equipment to light a stadium and enough digital photographic gear to document a war. Bill Cunningham, who died on Saturday at the age of 87, did it all differently and in so doing became the essential visual chronicler of fashion in the USA.
Bill worked for The New York Times, but there is no external evidence that he took direct orders from editors—or that he deferred to the wishes of designers, subjects or anyone else. His method was to go around Manhattan on a bicycle, wearing a purposefully utilitarian and unfashionable outfit: blue French worker’s jacket, khakis and sneakers. At charity benefits and other social goings on—which is where I usually ran into him—he would switch into something black, not to be fashionable, but to blend in, rather like a stalking ninja—which, photographically, is rather the role liked to fill. His camera was typically an obsolescent (to a photojournalist) 35mm film model, and I never saw him trouble himself to carry more than one lens. He was balletic in his movements, turning, twisting, weaving and sometimes seeming to float among chatting socialites, popping off at what interested him. He was all business: if you called out, “Hi, Bill,” you were lucky to get a nod and a smile in response before he seemingly had slipped under the dress of the grandly frocked blonde next to you and emerged unseen to snap one just like her a few paces beyond.
The protocol was to pretend you did not see him even if you did, even as you silently pleaded with the gods of fashion that you had worn something worthy of Bill’s attention. (As a middle-aged man in a Henry Poole dinner jacket, I never held any such illusions.) The payoff was to have your picture in The New York Times, most often in one of the short videos Bill filed, narrated in his typically avuncular style—his high voice effusive with enthusiasm at trends and fads, some of them not known to almost anyone until he announced their ascendance.
Bill was no photographic stylist. As long as the image made his point about what was being worn, it was good enough for him. And because his eye for fashion was so unfailing, it made no matter. As Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, frequently acknowledged, “We all dressed for Bill.”
If Bill photographed you, by all means, accept the honor and cherish it. Under law, you have no right to compensation for it: if he snapped your image at a benefit or on the street, you had no expectation of privacy, and so he did not need the one thing he never appeared to have concerned himself to get: a model release. Sometimes people claim that, in some published photograph or another, they were made to look bad and so try build a case around that. With Bill Cunningham, sorry: he would only photograph you if he thought you looked fantastically unique or simply fantastic. If you did look bad or (almost as unsettling) commonplace, he just passed you by. Conversely, if you managed to photograph him at work, as I did for my series of photographs of the Upper East Side party scene Naked at the Ball (the picture is above), he did not care—just as long as you did not get in his way when it was his turn.
Bill Cunningham was indeed one of a kind. The fashion world will miss him.
Credit: Alan Behr
Photo Credit: Photograph Copyright © 2015 by Alan Behr