Bill Cunningham, the famous fashion photographer, liked to claim that he wasn’t a photographer at all. Instead he was a columnist who wrote with pictures. There is something to this statement. The story goes that he first documented what he saw by writing and drawing in little notebooks. When a friend suggested he try a camera, he never looked back. No wonder he thought he was writing with pictures.
My best Christmas gift this year was the wonderful new book focusing on Cunningham’s street photography. It is the ideal coffee table book—big, luxurious, and filled with pictures. Starting in the 1970s it goes up until the 2010s, documenting big trends and wacky fads seen on the streets of the New York. All of the photos come from Cunningham’s archive—a collection so vast that the containers had to be moved by fork lift. I can’t imagine how the editor, Tiina Loite, went about making selections for the book.
Cunningham’s “On the Street” columns for the New York Times were jammed packed with photos, giving a sense of the proliferation of a single color or style. Even though it goes against Cunningham’s own aesthetic, Loite has taken a different approach. Sometimes she highlights a single picture, and at the most she chooses just four examples of a look. Cunningham might not have liked this, but I think this lets you see the details more clearly, while still getting a sense of the theme.
Although Cunningham certainly had an elitist streak, showing a fondness for wealthy society women who could afford glamorous clothes, this book reveals his populist tendencies. All of New York–old and young, poor and rich, women and men, of color and not–gets his attention. He found unusual looks and surprising patterns everywhere.
This book is both a wonderful fashion history, documenting trends over a fifty year period, and also a lesson in looking. The photos teach that if you just open your eyes and pay attention, you too might recognize that many on the street are suddenly wearing a particular shade of pink.