Bill Cunningham takes a lot of photographs for a person who says: “I am not a photographer”. And we can learn much just by watching how Bill goes about not taking photos, which happens to be his full time job at the New York Times. (tinyurl.com/82u6zcu)
Bill, his bike and his camera are so famous in New York that he is now the subject of a biographical documentary, directed lovingly by Richard Press, recently in cinemas and now available on DVD. (Bill Cunningham: New York Zeitgeist Films)
The synopsis of the story is easy: 83 year old Bill rides his bike around New York and whenever he sees a fashionably (read “startlingly”) dressed person he stops and takes a photo. His bike is “classic Schwinn”, which is like saying “Malvern Star”, and his camera is a Nikon 35mm film SLR with what looks like a manual focus 50mm lens.
Each week he is on the lookout for fashion themes that he can merge together into a page of photos with a short explanatory text. His significance to the fashion industry is illustrated by his award of the French Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008. He turned up for the presentation in a Paris street sweeper’s jacket, which happens to be his favourite, and just about only, garment. That is, apart from his $1 plastic poncho that he mends with gaffer tape.
Bill is aware of what he calls the contradiction – an ascetic, anti-materialistic person of unimpeachable integrity who makes a modest living taking photos of the frivolous rich. The disconnection is as great as that between an ornithological photographer and his avian subjects.
He may reject the epithet “photographer” but he can teach us a thing or two. First, he loves his subjects, as alien as they are to his own way of life. As one friend puts it: “Bill has never taken a cruel photograph.”
Then he uses the simplest equipment and materials. His rolls of 35mm negative film are developed in a city photo shop and then scanned at the Times.
He works close and quickly, never making anyone wait around while he gets his camera settings right. And he usually keeps his flash as far away from the camera as his left arm can reach, holding it at the end of a connecting cable.
Most importantly his photos have life and movement. He rejects the static and posed.
Bill Cunningham: New York is a moving portrait of a modest man and a short lesson in photography from a master.
And while we’re in New York do take a look at the latest exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Naked before the camera. Most of the photos in the exhibition can be seen here: tinyurl.com/87dfraq It is a curious historical collection of pictures of naked people. You have been warned!