Mar 212011

“Money is cheap, Freedom is Expensive”

His bike has been stolen twenty

eight times, he still shoots film,

and doesn’t understand why

anyone needs a kitchen in their

apartment.  Bill does not consider

himself a photograper.  His interest

and sole commitment is finding

people who wear clothes well.  Take

a closer look at the man who watches

New Yorkers find their style.


Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York, now playing at Film Forum.



[ I don't ACCEPT MONEY ]
New York City is a tough place to do business.  The only thing harder, might be doing business while maintaining your ethics.  When checks and contracts have enough zeros, most morals fly out the window.  To combat the moral vortex of the city, Bill Cunningham has taken an interesting approach.  He refuses to eat at benifits, does not drink socially, and refuses to cash checks cut by some large corporations.
Bill used to have a dream gig.  After working his 9-5, he would pedal down to Soho, where he was given free reign.  His photo layouts were between 50-99 pages long.  While he was working for Details Magazine founder Annie Flanders, Condè Nast bought the magazine.  Bill recieved a check that he refused to cash.  Why not cash the check after a few years of working for an upstart magazine?  He said it keeps him free.  Maybe Bill is a Buddhist monk hiding out in a French street sweapers smock.  It is surreal to watch an eighty year old honored for maintaining a moral high ground while swimming in High Society Gala’s and Fashion Week.  But its true.  The man in intensely committed to following fashion on the street.  His formula is simple.  Take a camera, stand on the corner, and watch life as it happens.
Bill confesses that he is not a photographer, though he appears to be the only man who can get Anna Wintour to pose for a shot.  Whatever he calls himself, he has become a legend and does not show any signs of quitting soon.

Bill Cunningham Portrait

Bill Cunningham sitting ring side at Runway Show.

So not everyone reads the New York Times, I understand.  My idea of reading the New York Times is waiting for the weekend Style magazine and flipping through the Arts and Metropolitan sections while drinking a Saturday caffe.  Even if you do not know who Bill is, I promise that you will recognize his work.  He shoots street portraits of anyone wearing an interesting or outragous outfit.  The Times features his work in two seperate columns, one on Society Benefits and the other called “On The Street.” The collections of characters from dandies to fashionistas have been his muses for over fifty years.  Since he was young women’s dresses and hats were keeping him busy as he sat in church.  Coming to New York after a year at Harvard, he cultivated people watching into a street sport without ever becoming a paparazzo.  His lens, voice, and sensability project a kindness that grants him an all access pass to a trusting audience.

Bill Cunningham Film Forum Marquis

The marquis at Film Forum and the aptly dressed crowd after the Sunday 4:30 showing. Leica M9: 28mm Elmarit, ISO 400, f 5.6, 1/90th.  © Adam Marelli.

Photography critic Fred Ritchen pointed out a trend in magazines over the last fifty years.  It appears we are becoming more self absorbed.  The favorite monthlies have changed from,”Life > People > US Weekly.”  The pages of US Weekly, aside from making mediocre toilet paper, have created a haven for Paparazzi, the unethical breed of opportunist photographers looking to make a quick buck.  On the other end of the spectrum is Bill Cunningham, who could have made an archive that would have made him a millionaire many times over.  Instead, he turns his lens away from shocking embarrassment and maintains his true calling of watching fashion.  For young photographers trying to carve out a niche, it must be encouraging to see that people respect a man with values.  When Bill is not shooting on the streets, he has a pile of invites flooding his desk from every Gala, fashion show, or high society party that most people would kill for.  Proving that a smile and a compliment can go long way.

Bill Cunningham New York Ticket Line

Leaving the film, it looked like Bill locked his bike outside while the line developed for the next showing. Leica M9: 28mm Elmarit f 2.8, ISO 400, f 5.6, 1/90th.  © Adam Marelli.

① ② ③
Learning from a Gentleman. I enjoy older gentlemen.  Its a preferences I’ve had since childhood.  They never sugar coat things.  After years of experience they can cut through all the non-sense and tell you what is really happening.  Even though Bill is 80 years old, we are the ones who need a prostetic, namely his camera lens.  Anna Wintour admitted that her entire team (including her infallable self) can miss something that Bill finds on the streets.  The really impressive jobs like “Observer,” “Thinker,” or “Creator” never come with business cards.  Bill is an true Observer.

‚놠‚ë° ‚ë¢
The Mystery.  The private life of Bill Cunningham is a mystery.  No one knows if he is straight, gay, happy, or sad.  His apartment is a collection of file cabinets and a twin mattress.  The only thing that people know about Bill is that he is a hawk for good fashion.  His dedication to the cut of a dress or the comination of colors might have been medicated if he was born thirty years later.  Fortunatly he escaped the pills and should inspire a younger generation to dive head first into their passions, with no regard for money, fame, or prestige.  Just do it, and do it well.  Leave the pills and the psychiatrists behind.  There is nothing wrong with being into something that no ones else believes is worth a damn.

‚ë† ‚ë° ‚ë¢
Budget Style. We don’t need fancy equipment to make a solid body of work.  I am sure Bill could have a Bently drive him between events.  Instead, he prefers to take his Schwinn, eat $3 sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches, and drink coffee from street carts.  There is nothing fancy about his habits, but he does them so well.  He shoots an old Nikon and never once mentions dynamic range.  Photography seems to create tunnel vision.  Its probably because we spend all day looking though a camera.  Watching Bill move and photograph on the street had me feeling that no matter how familiar a city feels there is always room to explore.

Bill Cunningham New York

Around the corner from Film Forum, New York is preparing for a new face to emerge. This is a plot of land just north of architect Rafael Vinoly's studio on Vandam Street. Leica M9: 28mm Elmarit f 2.8, ISO 400, f 8.0, 1/180th.  © Adam Marelli.

Time to put down the digital, get out the film camera and go people watching.  Whether its a local diner, the gas station, or the corner of 57th and 5th Ave, go see what people are up to and see what happens.


Bill Cunningham New York from So Haute on Vimeo.


Running until March 29th
209 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10014
(212) 727-8110

Bill Cunningham’s Column for the New York Times.

Bill Cuningham, “Seriously.”

  One Response to “Bill Cunningham New York”

  1. Thanks for your post on Bill Cunnngham. I appreciated observing his passion in action and reflecting that my passions all too often tempered by self conscienceness.

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