by Marc H Miller
For readers of the weekend style section of the New York Times, Bill Cunningham (1929 – 2016) was a perennial presence in two of the paper’s most popular weekly picture columns: On the Street, a sharp-eyed compendium of the fashion he encountered on the street; and Evening Hours, a compilation of portraits of society figures at New York philanthropic fund-raisers. Although people admired his columns, his skill as a photographer was largely lost by his insistence on being called a fashion historian, and by his preference for dense, multi-picture layouts that obscured the photography in order to highlight fashion trends.
But the round of attention following his death has elevated Cunningham, and he is now regarded as a top-tier street and event photographer. Because of his puritan work ethic and ability to fade into the background Cunningham was able to amass a vast number of pictures over a forty-year period (1970s through 2015). Mostly centered on fashion and shot spontaneously, the photographs capture stylishly dressed people in public spaces and at events. They not only provide an unmatched history of fashion but also project an upbeat feeling rooted in Cunningham’s love of people and fashion.
Gallery 98 has recently acquired a large selection of Details magazines, Cunningham’s main journalistic outlet from 1982 to 1990. Founded by Annie Flanders, Details began as an independent downtown fashion and life-style magazine that quickly expanded nationally, leading to its sale to Condé Nast in 1990. Cunningham was part of the original Details team that started with the first issue in October 1982, and eventually came to dominate issues in the late 1980s with one-hundred-plus page spreads covering fashion shows in New York, London, and Paris. The entire history of fashion in the 1980s is contained within the pages of Details. The magazines also document Cunningham’s rise to artistic maturity prior to his move to The New York Times as a full-time staff member in 1994.
William John Cunningham Jr. was above all a lover and connoisseur of fashion with a deep knowledge of its history. His interest emerged early, first as a hat designer in the 1950s before he embarked on a career as a freelance fashion journalist in the 1960s at Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune. He took up photography as a journalist in order to better present his ideas about fashion, and by the 1970s he had hit upon what became his signature style — impromptu photographs of fashion in the streets. Drawing upon both his awareness of couture trends and his sensitivity to the personal style of creative individuals, Cunningham candidly captured nearly half a century of fashion in great detail. His photographs have an aesthetic viewpoint that contrasts dramatically with the darker, more probing images taken by other street photographers like Gary Winogrand. He focused on beauty and used his camera to isolate from the crowd individuals with panache, and capture graceful movements and confident postures.
Cunningham’s work for Details in the 1980s shows the full range of his interests: candid shots of weddings taken outside of churches as a glamour experience; pictures of carefully draped mannequins at the Brooklyn Museum illustrate his tribute to designer Charles James; a trip to Paris included both runway photographs and street shots of the fashionistas attending the shows; one article on New York street fashion was titled “Ahead of the Game,” while another featured young designers at a midnight fashion show at the nightclub Danceteria.
Over time, Cunningham began to concentrate on the high profile fashion shows staged in fall and spring by the top designers in New York, London, and Paris. He had carte blanche from Details in the choice of shows, and edited the pictures and provided his own layouts. He was an astute observer, capturing a Who’s Who of 80’s designers: Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren, Norma Kamali, and many others. Along with his uncanny ability to clearly reveal each garment, his photographs are also always animated by a sense of movement.
Cunningham’s success as a photographer was partially rooted in his ability to fade unseen into the background, except on the occasion of an extended film interview in 2010, when Cunningham suddenly emerged as the unlikely populist antidote to the vanity, conspicuous consumption, and commercialism generally associated with fashion. He lived out his last years as something of a cult figure: the low-key high-fashion photographer in his trademark blue French worker’s jacket, who rode around the city on a bicycle, devoted his life to the beauty of fashion, and lived a near monastic existence in a small apartment above Carnegie Hall.
The issues of Details magazine presented here were chosen because of Cunningham’s contributions but they are also of interest because they feature the work of other photographers like Bruce Weber, and Marcus Leatherdale; advertisements illustrated by Andy Warhol and Keith Haring; ongoing club gossip by Stephen Saban; and special features like Cookie Mueller’s obituary of Jean-Michel Basquiat.