Known for his color-coordinated mosaics of fashion photos taken impromptu on the street, New York Times fashion columnist Bill Cunningham had a blithe eye for style and a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Cunningham, who was still taking to the streets on a bicycle to shoot his weekly column right up until his death in June 2016, at the age of 87, is now the subject of an exhibit, On the Street With Bill Cunningham, mounted by the Times. It makes its Denver debut this month with a January 12 reception at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in the Golden Triangle Arts District. We talked with Times photo editor Tiina Loite, a longtime associate of Cunningham’s who will speak at the reception, to learn more about the exhibit and his legacy.
Cunningham’s chosen uniform of black sneakers and a blue jacket served him well as he pedaled around New York, catching everyday people and fashionistas in candid shots. And it afforded him a gift for blending in with the quirky urban denizens he snapped. That was just a piece of what made him so special.
“Bill never considered himself a photojournalist,” says Loite. “He would always tell you he was not a real photographer, that he was not in same category as photographers who went out and covered the news. He described himself to me once as a style columnist who wrote stories with pictures.” And that’s exactly what he did, she adds. “Bill was always an independent being. He did what he did. He wrote his own copy, took his own pictures and worked on his layouts. He had an eye and composed beautiful pictures, but he focused on what people were wearing — shoes and bags and peoples’ ensembles — and he reveled in it. I’ve retired using the phrase ‘one-of-a-kind’ to describe him.”
Fashion was more than a living for Cunningham — it was his immersive, symbiotic muse, the thing that made his world go ’round. “He could go to a runway show and jump up and down at the end, but he’d also sometimes be moved to tears by the beauty of what came down the runway,” remembers Loite. “He would talk about shows he’d been to in the past the way some people talk about seeing Maria Callas sing, with the same reverence.”
But Cunningham’s favorite subjects paraded down the street rather than the runway. “He’d say, with total enthusiasm, ‘You’ve gotta be on the streets, kid! You’ve gotta be on the street!’ Loite recalls. “He saw action everywhere — not just in front of Bergdorf Goodman. And he appreciated things that other people passed by. He celebrated people. He was not interested in celebrities who needed five people to get them dressed every day.
“And Bill was also like a mailman about the weather: He would go out in blizzards and rainstorms. He even went out during Superstorm Sandy. He’d go out and capture images of debris in the streets, of people wearing garbage bags to stay dry. Some of his most amusing columns had to do with the weather: umbrellas blowing backward, that sort of thing. He would bring variety to his columns; sometimes he would photograph Christmas windows or Halloween decorations. He was not always all about fashion, per se — he’d change things up.”
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If there’s one thing young photographers can take away from Cunningham’s example, Loite notes, it’s a talent for seeing the little stuff: “Noticing things. Bill was always careful to remain invisible. He didn’t want people posing for him. He wanted to be invisible.
“He was a modest man,” she continues. “Deep down inside, he was a shy man, and sometimes that can be good if you’re a journalist.”
Meet Loite and see the fruits of Bill Cunningham’s singular career when On the Street With Bill Cunningham opens on Friday, January 12, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock Street. The exhibit, which includes Cunningham's photographs and audio clips of him speaking about his work, runs through February 24. Learn more at CPAC online.