NEW YORK — “I prefer to be invisible. “That’s been the motto of Bill Cunningham, fashion photographer of The New York Times, throughout his 35-year career at the paper. This Sunday, though, The Times is shining the spotlight on Cunningham with a 20-page special section devoted to his work and the way in which he has chronicled fashion for the past four decades.
In the section, Guy Trebay, William Norwich, Cathy Horyn, Michael Kimmelman and Harold Koda, chief curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, weigh in on Cunningham’s influence on fashion and, specifically, street style.
With his three-pronged attack, Cunningham’s modus operandi has always been to photograph the runway shows, street fashion, and women at parties to get a full picture of what people are wearing.
“I realized that you didn’t know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy. I realized that the street was the missing ingredient,” writes Cunningham in one of the section’s features, called “Bill on Bill.”
In a telephone interview with WWD Thursday, Cunningham described what life is like as New York’s roving fashion photographer and which decade proved to be the most fun.
Currently, Cunningham senses something is bubbling on the street. “Right now is particularly exciting; there’s a transition into something new. I don’t have a crystal ball, but there’s a change underfoot. It’s terrific and it’s the opposite of what you expect. It’s confirmed at night.” He declined to divulge the actual looks he was describing for fear of giving away an upcoming layout.
“It’s all a challenge now because everyone’s so understated,” he added. “The Fifties were very understated too. The peak period was the Sixties. The whole youth revolution. You had the Flower Children and the Hippies and the Upper East Siders trying to get into Courrèges and Cardin. Courrèges was the revolution. I thought it was something I never saw in my life. It was different. When I saw Courrèges, I thought he invented the third sex. If he pulled a tunic that covered the hip and the butt, women could do it without looking strange. It wasn’t the little white boots. He had the proportions of Balenciaga. He was a hot house of 21st century glamour and put it on a spaceship.”
However, Courrèges is what cost Cunningham one of his earlier jobs as a fashion columnist at WWD. After a successful run as a hat designer, Cunningham was recruited by John Fairchild, editor in chief of WWD at the time, to write a fashion column.
In Sunday’s article in the Times, Cunningham explains that Fairchild told him to “write whatever you see.” So Cunningham raved about Courrèges. “But John killed my story. He said, ‘No, no, Saint Laurent is the one.’ And that was it for me. When they wouldn’t publish the Courrèges article the way I saw it, I left. They wanted all the attention on Saint Laurent, who made good clothes. But I thought the revolution was Courrèges. Of course, in the end, Saint Laurent was the longer-running show. So Fairchild was right in that sense.”
In the past, Cunningham traveled to Milan, London and Paris but he now focuses all his attention on New York and Paris. He’s never been to the Far East. “It’s too late now. I should have gone to Tokyo 10 years ago, but I used to see the Tokyo kids in London at Vivienne Westwood’s shows,” he said.
Interestingly, Cunningham is an employee of the Times, but pays all his own expenses, including hotel and airfare. “It gives me my freedom. This way I can go wherever I want and shoot whatever I want. I travel where I think the news is,” he said.
For the first 25 years, Cunningham was a Times freelancer, but after a truck hit him on his bicycle about 10 years ago, he joined the company so he could have health benefits. Despite his status as a freelancer, he never sold his pictures elsewhere. He said he prefers to have total control, writing all the copy himself for his photo essays “On the Street.”
“You must protect the people you photograph,” said Cunningham. “Early on, I had a bad run-in. A big magazine asked for a particular layout. I did it, and the copy [they wrote] was insulting. One of the people [photographed in the layout] wanted to sue me, and I don’t blame them. I’ve never sold a picture since.”
Nor is he interested in publishing a book of his photographs — many of which have never seen the printed page. “I don’t have an interest in that. I want to stay on the street. I’m too busy filling the space at The Times,” he said.
Over the years, Anna Piaggi, a fashion editor, and Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, have been key subjects.
“I think she [Piaggi] is like a work of art. She’s so inventive. The way she puts herself together. I first saw her at a Chloé show and she was in a tailored black suit, without a hat. It was the Sixties, and she had on a pin with plastic grapes like a corsage. The next time she was outside YSL’s first or second show in Paris, and she was wearing pj’s from the 1930s with a tank top, and holding a sun parasol. She mixes everything up, the old and the new,” he said.
Cunningham first discovered Wintour at the couture shows, when she was an assistant to one of the editors at Harpers & Queen. “It was very uptight at the couture show. Here was this wonderful, delightful young person in all these London clothes.
“She’s a very classic dresser, but in the Sixties she reflected the mod-and-swinging London, with bell bottoms and long scarves. Nowadays, the simplicity is the key and her dressing marvelously fits her body. It looks like custom-made, but it’s not. The proportions, the colors and the fit of it, and her legs. She’s very interesting for a lot of women. There’s a certain balance between fashion and reality.”
Nowadays, there are women who consistently catch his eye, such as Isabel Dupré, style director of Elle. “She’s terrific. The way she puts it all together. She’ll wear a top from Stella [McCartney] with her own jeans. It’s the mix, without being eccentric,” he said.
Despite being at all the key fashion shows and covering practically every black-tie charity event in the city, Cunningham said he doesn’t really have much interaction with designers. “I try to keep a distance [from fashion designers] so no one influences me. They think, ‘He’s dangerous because he doesn’t play the game.’ I let the street speak to me,” he said.
Cunningham doesn’t particularly enjoy photographing well-known people, although his photograph of the reclusive Greta Garbo landed him his first half page in The Times in 1978.
At 73, Cunningham hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the job, nor has he any intentions of retiring. He travels all over the city by bike, photographing in SoHo, the East Village, the Meatpacking district, Chelsea, the West Side, Madison Avenue and, of course, 57th Street. He still covers parties until the wee hours, then hops on his bicycle to travel home. He doesn’t use a helmet, but wears a reflective vest. “I think every reporter should have a bicycle,” he said.
Asked if he wears tuxedos to black-tie events, he said, “I dress to be invisible.” However, he does worry that all this publicity in The Times might cramp his style. “The only thing about this section is it kind of tears it down a bit. I’ll have to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.”