BillCunningham is a well-known an American photographer celebrated forhis candid and street photography. This man, who runs two weeklycolumns in the New York Times, is best recognized for his photographywork in the fashion industry where he has literally led to thediscovery of several famous brands in fashion. Cunningham has beeninvolved in photography for about 50 years thus has needed experienceand expertise in the field. His work in fashion has tended toconcentrate on the real world with real people in the street, fashionmeets and private parties bringing about an aspect in photographythat captures objects in their natural environment and conveys uniquemessages that could not otherwise be better conveyed.
Asa photojournalist, Cunningham has been active in photojournalism andfashion since 1948 after he relocated to New York. His first stintwas in fashion where he worked in designing hats under the William J.label. He was to later serve in one tour of the US army beforeworking as a journalist at the Chicago Tribune and Women`sWear Daily. As a fashion journalist he ventured into photographywith an emphasis on women fashion. He made his first contribution tothe New York Times in 1978 when he first published acollection of impromptu pictures on women fashion. The collectionreceived very positive reviews that the photo collection was turnedinto a weekly column. Today, Bill runs two columns: On the Street andEvening Hours, both appearing in the weekly Sunday Styles section.
Forhis efforts Cunningham has won numerous awards not only inphotojournalism but also arts, fashion and other fields. Forinstance, he was awarded the Officier de l`ordre des Arts et desLettres (Order of Arts and Letters) by the French Ministry of Culturein 2008 and the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence award in 2012. TheOrder of Arts and Letters is a well-recognized award offered by theFrench government to those who have excelled or made significantcontributions to the arts and literature (Black Tie). The CarnegieHall Medal of Excellence is also dedicated to rewarding those whohave excelled in transformative art. Therefore, Bill’s work inphotojournalism allows the public to consume art in a different waythat they could not before the invention of the camera (Berger 19).
Additionally,Bill was the subject of a 2010 documentary film about his work andlife. The documentary film titled “Bill Cunningham New York”,which lasts 84 minutes, was directed by Richard Press. The filmlargely explored Bill’s ideology in photography whereby in themodern digital age, Bill has stuck to the film technology. The filmwon several awards including the Chlotrudis Award from Society forIndependent Film, which is a non-profit organization that teachesaudiences to view films actively and helps people experience theworld through independent film, and encourages discussion anddiscourse about film and the world.
Again,the man’s simplicity and his ideology of fashion are to be admired.He is recognizable in the streets of New York in his trademark Frenchblue workwear jacket, bicycle and Nikon film Camera. The choice offilm photography as opposed of digital photography is mostly a matterof personal choice though many people consider film photography moreclassic (Sontag 6). What makes his work unique as explored by thisfilm and as reported by the Black Tie Blog, is the fact that Billphotographs ordinary women as they go about their days and does notphotograph paid models or even accept payment to photograph anyone.In so doing, his street photojournalism is free from commercialinterests from major fashion design brands and aspiring models. Infact, the man himself states that he does not photograph interestingindividuals such as celebrities who are oftentimes dressed for freeby designers for advertising purposes, but rather photographsordinary women in the streets of New York dressed in “interestingclothing” (Avillez).
Ideally,the women that Bill targets are not prepared for a photo session.This is what makes the work interesting, original and captured in thenatural setting. Berger (46) indicates that in targeting a femalesubject in photography, as a woman her presence expresses her ownattitude to herself. This in a way allows Bill to not only capturewomen’s fashion but also their attitudes in life and probably theirattitude as affected by the clothing they are wearing. In so doingBill seeks to address more than what contemporary photojournalismseeks to communicate and represent in the world of art. This isbecause for most of his works, he takes the photographs without thepermission or awareness of some of his subjects. Even Bill’s editorat New York Times, Arthur Gelb, reckons that the publication ofBill’s column was “a turning point for the Times,because it was the first time the paper had run pictures ofwell-known people without getting their permission” (Snead).
However,Cunningham does not only photograph the rich and affluent in New Yorkbut also gives priority to fashion diversity which tends to changewith cultural backgrounds. By operating in one of the largest citiesin the world with a cosmopolitan population, Cunningham is exposed towide range of images and subjects on which to capture. This is alsoevident in his wide range of published photos in his columns and alsoin some of his unpublished images posted on the social mediaplatform, Instagram by his assistant (Press 2010). Berger (14) agreeswith this approach in art and photography by noting that byspecifically targeting women on the streets who are uniquely dressed,the photographer thereby captures the images of people of varyingcultural and socioeconomic background. In fact, displaying thisdiversity through images gives a more realistic representation asopposed to any other form of imagery such as painting (Sontag 34).Thus, Bill’s work is thus best suited to advance diversity.
Nonetheless,taking such a cultural way of viewing things can give rise culturalassumptions. What the artist views as diverse and unique sense offashion among his female subjects may be predetermined by his owncultural background. Given that the artist has been in the field forseveral decades, his ideas on diversity and cultural assumptions mayaffect his works (Press). For instance, one of his common assumptionsis that most celebrities and fashion models are dressed for free bydesigners or even paid to adorn certain clothing for advertisingpurposes. This is not supported by data but by his experiences andsociocultural background.
Therefore,Cunningham’s audience is exposed to what the artist subjectivelyviews as striking and diverse. His interpretation of his work andchoice of subjects does not follow a standard format given that hephotographs many women but publishes only a few images. At the sametime, his audience does not necessarily see or interpret the imagesthe way he does. In fact, everyone sees what he or she wants to seethereby minimizing the subjective influence of the photographer tosome extent (Berger 8). In most cases, a photographer targets asubject with the intention of telling a certain story. This story ishowever, not interpreted in the same way as the photographerintended. Besides seeing what one wants to see, subjective influence,world views, culture, knowledge and even social economic backgroundinfluence what one sees and reads from the images.
Forinstance, while majority of Bill’s works covers women, he alsocovers men and children. Therefore, his work captures genderrelations in the natural and even how women relate to their childrenin a cultural sense. These relations can be interpreted differentlyby different people. For instance, public display of affection in animage by Bill maybe intended to portray love while in some cultures,he same image might be viewed to capture the level of immorality inAmerica or the western world. Thus, his intentions of conveyingmessages of gender relations are subject to varied interpretationfrom the audience.
Furthermore,his work can be also argued to advance the cause of feminism throughwomen’s choice in fashion. In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, careerwomen were viewed to be going against the norm by taking jobs anddressing for work. Women were largely expected to play the role ofcarers and housewives which would also be very telling in theirfashion sense and even location in the city of New York. Forinstance, it would be expected that women were dressed for makinggrocery trips to the city or even picking children form schools(Hillman 81). However, in the modern world, women play more importantroles as career women and their fashion sense has transformed. Again,modern day mass media such as advertising has taken theobjectification of women a notch higher (Kirkham). All these changeshave been captured by Cunningham and he seeks to convey the messagethat times have changed and the place of women in society and howthey relate with the male gender and even other ‘new genders’ have also changed as told by their fashion sense and that thesechanges must be embraced.
Allin all, it is clear that Bill Cunningham’s photography andcontribution in art has made significant impact in the world of artand other fields. His works conveys unique messages that wouldotherwise be lost. He has managed to capture well and convey theissues of all cultures and people from different cultural backgroundsthrough fashion. Furthermore, he has managed to capture well and tellthe story of the changing gender relations and the place of women insociety as well as their freedom through choice in fashion. As such,his work falls among the greatest in the field.
Avillez,Joana. Photographer Profile: Bill Cunningham. 2015. Web.
BergerWays of seeing. New York: Penguin: 2008. Print.
Blacktie. Bill Cunningham Receives Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence.2015. Web.
Hillman,Betty, Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics ofSelf-Presentation in the
1960sAnd 1970s. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. 2015. Print.
KaunasInternational Film Festival. Bill Cunnigham New York. 2015.Web.
Kirkham,Ali, How Society Polices Women’s Clothing (No Matter What We Wear).2015. Web.
Press,Richard Dir. Bill Cunningham New York. Dir. Richard Press.2010. Film.
Snead,Elizabeth. 2012. Legendary Street Fashion Photographer BillCunningham Honored
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Sontag,Susan. Photography. New York: Penguin: 2008. Print.