The Mahvellous Bill Cunningham

Street fashion – and street fashion photography – is now ubiquitous in most cities. Online, there are even niche sites dedicated to older women, people of colour or particular style trends. But most of these blogs tend to simply record what’s out there, and what’s currently hot within mainstream fashion. Here in Toronto, where we’re definitely less adventurous than other cities, it’s not uncommon to visit street style websites, or even articles in our major papers, and see pretty young girls in the same trends – currently, cutoff jeans, brown suede boots and flowered shirts – from the typical fast fashion mall store.

But in New York, street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham of the New York Times doesn’t just record the fashions he sees on the streets, he takes an active part in setting trends and provoking stylish New Yorkers to follow suit.

Cunningham spends most days in busy Manhattan, his blue jacket and bicycle making him clearly visible (some fashionable types seek him out, hoping to have their outfits snapped), photographing whatever catches his eye. Always working with film, never digital, Cunningham sits down with a Times photo editor at the end of the week and sorts out the trends he’s come across – and those trends are not always dictated by the runways or the high street stores.

In a recent Sunday Times column, Cunningham remarked that mid-August usually sees New Yorkers preparing for autumn and returning to their all black wardrobes, but this week, he’s caught dozens of people on the street looking stylish in grey. Suddenly, grey is a thing, although the truly stylish, not wanting to be seen as followers, will have already moved on.

To truly appreciate Cunningham’s expertise (he was a milliner and fashion journalist when he was younger, and has been photographing street fashion since the 1960s), I advise not just reading the print version but watching the video of each week’s column. There, Cunningham, with his charming Boston/New York accent narrates each still image, with added insight into his decisions for including the photos, and what events are happening in New York that might have been the reason for the outfits. His discerning eye and fashion expertise can easily tell vintage from reproductions (as was the case at a 1920s-themed garden party picnic earlier this year), and even when he obviously hates a current trend, he always finds a gentlemanly positive spin to balance his slightly acerbic wit.

Once you find yourself addicted to Cunningham’s weekly columns (besides On the Street, there’s Evening Hours, mostly about social events) head over to your favourite online movie site and check out the documentary made about New York’s best-loved street photographer. The film Bill Cunningham New York follows the eccentric photographer from home to work and even to Paris fashion week, demonstrating Cunningham’s quirks and eccentricities, such as his uniform of a blue jacket typically worn by Parisian work men, his adamant stance on not accepting food or drink – not even a glass of water – at the events he covers, as well as his popularity among New York’s celebrities and socialites, even though he plays no favourites and is as likely to give space in his columns to a colourful street punk as to a millionaire fashion plate in a designer gown.

Now 85, Cunningham has taken literally thousands of photos that have never been seen by anyone. These are hoarded away, first in his Carnegie Hall studio, and when the Carnegie residents were forced to move in 2010, in a new apartment, where he had the kitchen cupboards and appliances removed (he doesn’t cook) to accommodate more filing cabinets full of negatives. While he obviously values them highly, he appears to have no interest in publishing these images, even though they would be a definitive, multi-volume collection of street style of the past half-century.

Cunningham did publish one book – titled Facades and featuring photographer Editta Sherman posed in historical costume in front of major New York architectural landmarks (the costumes matched the period of the building). Earlier this year, the New York Historical Society did a retrospective, although copies of the 1978 book are hard to find.

I desperately hope that someone close to Cunningham is trying to convince him to publish his unseen work. In the meantime, I anxiously await Friday evenings each week, which is when the Times posts Cunningham’s column and video to their website. Hearing his joyful voice remark on the “mahvellous” fashions he has come across is a highlight of my week.

This piece was originally published on Vermicious.