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26 June 2016
You have to admire people who have told their publishers to go to hell. It takes more than moxie, which is in plentiful supply. It takes integrity, which is all too rare. The world lost one of its straightest shooters this weekend when fashion photographer Bill Cunningham passed away.
Cunningham was freelancing for Women's Wear Daily in the 1960s when the publisher John Fairchild killed his story about André Courrèges because he favored Yves Saint Laurent.
"When they wouldn't publish the Courrèges article the way I saw it, I left," Cunningham said.
Cunningham didn't see socialites and celebrities. He saw clothes.
He had been designing hats for women at the time but the days of gloves and hats were ending in the bra-less 1960s. Cunningham, who began photographing people in the street during World War II with a Brownie, picked up a camera again in 1967 to shoot the Summer of Love for The Daily News and The Chicago Tribute, becoming a regular contributor to the N.Y. Times in the late 1970s where he continued to work until his death.
We featured him in the Saturday matinee Bill Cunningham's Words of Wisdom. Among those pearls of wisdom was the simple encouragement, "He who seeks beauty will find it." It might have been something he found in a fortune cookie.
Fortune was, for Cunningham, the photographer David Montgomery. Here's how Cunningham tells the story in Bill Cunningham on Bill Cunningham:
One night, in about 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.
Cunningham knew he had to photograph the big fashion shows to know what was going on but he also felt very strongly he had to shoot in the street "to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy." While candids were not a new idea, the subjects were socialites and celebrities, not ordinary people.
Cunningham didn't see socialites and celebrities. He saw clothes. "I'm only interested in people who look good. I'm looking for the stunners."
He didn't recognize anybody anyway. He didn't go to the movies and didn't own a TV. He captured Greta Garbo, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, the king and queen of Span, Farrah Fawcett and many others with no clue to who they were. They just looked good.
In 2002, the N.Y. Times published What It Was Like to Be Photographed by Bill Cunningham, a collection of quotes by not just people who had been photographed by Cunningham but by those who knew and worked with him as well.
In that piece, Bernadine Morris recalls just one example of how Cunningham operated:
One time he did a favor for me and to thank him, I made a reservation for lunch at the Russian Tea Room. When we got there, he said, "You know, there's a place I like better across the street." It was a Chock Full o' Nuts. However, he knew the waitress who worked there and she wouldn't take my money for the lunch. So, you see, he wouldn't let me return the favor.
He navigated the New York street scene by bike. When he was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, he biked onto the stage to accept the award.
He fueled his rides with breakfast at the Stage Star Deli, coming down from his studio above Carnegie Hall where he lived until recently amid his file cabinets of negatives, sleeping on a cot and sharing a bathroom.
He would not have found himself -- dressed in a French worker's jacket, khakis and black sneakers -- a worthy subject for his reportage. But he had enormous influence. Vogue's Anna Wintour once explained, "I've said many times, 'We all get dressed for Bill.'"
For over 50 years he cycled the streets of New York City looking for whatever caught his eye, no matter who was wearing it. Flying after the ephemeral world of fashion was all he wanted to do. And he did it with an integrity unbent by power, politics or personality.
In his wake, he left the fresh breeze of his passion to stir up what the rest of us have left on the street. We can now only turn back toward that fleeting image to wave one last time.