In a recent article on the Business of Fashion, Max Berlinger asks, “What happened to street style?” He questions whether what we now consider “street style” to be anything more than publicity stunts or staged shots. He also acknowledged long-time New York photographer Bill Cunningham for capturing true images of style on the streets. I watched Bill Cunningham, New York recently, a documentary on the photographer’s daily life. Even though it was released a few years ago, I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you.
In a nutshell, Bill Cunningham is a fashion photographer at the New York Times, and he’s held that position since the mid-sixties. He writes one column on New York society life, and one on street style. The man works tirelessly trying to capture the pulse of style on the streets of New York, and he lets the trends reveal themselves to him. You see him working from day to night, zipping on his bicycle, wearing the same blue jacket, from one event to the next. He doesn’t care much for food (you only see him eating at grab-and-go places) nor for intimate relationships (he was asked about this on camera, and had said he has no time for it). The one relationship he has seems to be a lifelong affair with photographing fashion.
I don’t want to review the film, as there are many great reviews out there, since the movie was released three years ago. What I would like to touch upon is the character of this man.
There’s this one scene closer to the end of the film where he’s at a high-profile event, and you see the paparazzi madly photographing celebrities on the red carpet. He says to the camera that the other photographers must think he’s such a fool for not getting the money shot, but then reveals to us that it’s not celebrity he’s after, but the clothes. And since the celebrity wasn’t wearing anything interesting, he wasn’t about to take her picture. For sticking to the true spirit of great fashion, I bow to this.
I like to think that when Aurora and I attend fashion events, the photos of the guests we take are of people who truly show a unique sense of style. As the reporter of the team, I’m the one who takes down people’s names after Aurora gets the shot, and I’ll ask what their role is, assuming they’re in the industry. Oftentimes, if they’re not directly involved with the industry, people tend to respond with hesitation, as if their role as a student isn’t nearly as important. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about what their role is, because we’re all about inclusion, and that goes for anyone at any event we attend. That was a big part of Bill Cunningham’s work, to photograph anyone and everyone on the street who expressed a unique point of view through clothing.
Another scene that spoke to me was when Bill attended fashion week. Unlike the other photographers who fight for a foot’s worth of space in the photography pit, he chose to sit in the front row. Now this really hit close to home because Aurora and I had talked about where she should be taking photos from. Like I said, most established photogs stake their position dead centre in front of the runway, and we’ve experienced being pushed around by them. Like anything else in life, there’s a pecking order, and these male photographers try to dictate where us “girls” need to be. So even though I tell Aurora to stand up (literally and figuratively), she prefers to sit down. I didn’t quite understand this until I watched one pivotal scene.
Bill acknowledged how everyone else in the pit ended up taking essentially the same photo straight-on. But from where he sits, when the model walks past him, he’s able to capture the movement she gives the garment. To him, it’s all about the interesting details you can’t see without an angle, the nuances of how the fabric flows, and the clothing being brought to life. After understanding Bill Cunningham’s position on what he takes photos of (the clothes, and not the person), and how he chooses to take them in ‘real life’ (unlike taking photos like stock images), I was able to understand Aurora’s artistry.
Since Aurora joined Style by Fire last year, we’ve had questions come up about the direction of the blog. But after watching Bill Cunningham, New York, I definitely want to follow in his footsteps to be true to fashion, and not let the politics dictate the work that we do. Thanks for being a man of such great integrity, Bill.
As for everyone who hasn’t yet watched this incredible film, I highly recommend it, even if you have no affiliation or interest in fashion. It’s really not about fashion, but about a man who lives an authentic life amidst the superficial nature of the industry. Just as I got some personal takeaways, I’m sure you will too.
Words by Miranda