In Praise of Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham at Ralph Lauren, New York. Copyright The Sartorialist

Bill Cunningham at Ralph Lauren, New York. Copyright The Sartorialist

Last week the American photographer Bill Cunningham died at the age of 87. Cunningham was a street and fashion photographer and was famous for both his unassuming character and his bicycle which he used to get from his Manhattan apartment to the various fashion events that he photographed around the city. He was working right up until his final days, allegedly sorting through photographs for a layout of his Evening Hours column in The New York Times.

In 2010, filmmaker Richard Press and writer Philip Gefter of The New York Times made a documentary about Bill called Bill Cunningham New York. Bill always alleged that he had not seen the film because he never understood what all the fuss about him and his work was about. I think this was what made Bill so unique amongst journalists in general and photographers in particular. As I write this an article has just come in to one of my feeds from The Washington Post published on Medium called  What Bill Cunningham taught us about ethical journalism.

As this article says:

“At a time when fashion influencers regularly receive free airfare, free clothes, free hotels, Cunningham was a journalistic ascetic. He valued his freedom more than anything else.”

Sadly here in the UK, following our recent decision to leave the European Union, we are feeling the effects of what happens when journalists are no longer impartial. When journalists are (sometimes quite literally) in bed with politicians and peddling their own opinions ignoring what the experts say can lead to disastrous outcomes which will take years and years to sort out (if they ever are) at the cost of billions of pounds of public money.

As the Medium article goes on to say:

“In many ways, journalism has veered away from telling other people’s stories and instead spends a great deal of time focused on the opinions, style, and personality of the journalist.”

The appreciation of Bill Cunningham’s work ethic and his unique style of fashion photography is shown by the numerous obituaries which were written about him. Here are just a few of those obituaries written from: Open Culture, Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, Phoblographer and The Washington Post.

The film of Bill Cunningham is one of my favourite of a working photographer and in it, while speaking of his work, he comes out with this great line:

“You see, if you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing.”

If only we could all, at least partially, live that by dictum.

RIP Bill.


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