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What Bill Cunningham taught me about life, love and photography

James Greig | August 11, 2016

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Picture a man on a bicycle, wearing a blue workers jacket, and with a Pentax camera (or two) around his neck.

Who are you thinking of?

For me it could be only be Bill Cunningham, who documented New York’s street fashion — in all its madcap wonder — from his bike.

He was more than just a fashion photographer though.

Since the 1970s, Bill worked tirelessly as a cultural anthropologist for the New York Times, capturing anything and everything that caught his eye.

“I started photographing people on the street during World War II. I used a little box Brownie. Nothing too expensive. The problem is I’m not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I’m too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I’m not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That’s all there is to it.

To explain why Bill’s work means so much to me, we have to rewind my life a little too.

Back at the start of 2012, I was about to enter a painful but transformational phase, where I was questioning everything about my life, and what I did for a living. In short I was feeling lost, and Bill Cunningham turned up out of nowhere, and showed me the way forward.

Somehow I heard about a documentary called “Bill Cunningham New York”, and managed to get hold of a copy. The story which unfolded on the screen over the next hour and a half changed my life.

Here was an 80-something year-old man, cycling around downtown New York to shoot street fashion.

And not in the way you might expect of someone his age.

Bill Cunningham was vivacious, prowling up and down the streets of Manhattan to capture New York’s best dressed people.

As a result, he became an integral part of the fashion circuit. Being shot by Bill was a badge of honour, even for fashion’s superstars:

He’s been documenting me since I was a kid, it can be one snaps, two snaps, or he ignores you…which is death.”
—Anna Wintour, Vogue

Photography was everything to Bill. He lived in a tiny apartment, surrounded by filing cabinet upon filing cabinet of his negatives. There wasn’t even space for a kitchen, so he’d eat at takeaway food joints. It’s a real shock to the system when you first see this in the film.

Bill Cunningham lived, in the true sense of the word, to take photographs.

And the documentary about Bill was exactly what I needed.

When I was a teenager I shot a lot of black and white photography, and developed it myself in a darkroom at school. Now, 15 years later, I was thinking about getting back into photography again, but wasn’t sure how. To be truthful, I was a bit scared too.

But… if an octogenarian could cycling around taking photos of strangers, why couldn’t I?

I realised I didn’t have any excuse not to.

A few days after watching the film, I dusted off my SLR camera and went cycling around Hackney on the lookout for interesting people. Taking the first portrait was nerve-wracking, and I let my subject get several blocks away before I got myself together and started chasing after him. But after that I didn’t look back, and as my interest in taking photos grew, CycleLove grew with it.

And it was all thanks to Bill.

We’ve lost a lot of good people this year.

As I’m in awe of what they accomplished, I didn’t cry when David Bowie or Prince or Muhammad Ali passed away.

But I cried my eyes out when I heard that Bill Cunningham had gone.

I’ve never mourned the loss of someone I haven’t met before. Why did it hit me so hard?

I think it’s because Bill changed the direction of my life.

More than that, he became a part of my internal compass, a guiding voice when I got stuck and wondered “What would Bill do?”

And I’m sure that thousands of other people feel the same way too.

What Bill Cunningham taught me about life, love and photography

Bill Cunningham didn’t just teach me about photography, he taught me about life, and the importance of doing the things that matter to you.

Without him, I’m not sure if I’d be doing what I do today.

1) Don’t wait for what you want to come to you. Go after it.

If you sit on the same corner, waiting for something to happen, you might get lucky. Or you might not. But you can’t engineer a great photo out of nothing, if you’re not in the right place, with the right mindset, you’ll never get anything.

2) Have one thing in your life that you don’t do for money

This is Bill Cunningham’s most quoted soundbite, and it’s not hard to see why…

If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing

I don’t think you don’t have to quit your job and “follow your passion” to make this happen. Actually I think this is terrible advice for most people, as it suggests that everyone is born with just one all-important-thing they must somehow discover to be happy. I’d rather believe in multi-potentiality, the possibility of many different paths to fulfillment.

But everyone can benefit from having something they do primarily for themselves.

It could be a hobby, a side project, or just a thing they do from time to time. For me it’s actually playing the guitar. I don’t play for anyone else, but I don’t need to, and I can’t imagine a time where anyone would pay me to play. (If they did, it would be a nice bonus of course, but I’m under no illusion that one-day I’ll be on stage at Glastonbury.)

Do something because you enjoy the process of doing it, not for the end result.

3) Telling a good story is more important than painting a beautiful picture

What matters more, capturing a “perfect” image, or capturing a moment?

Bill was pretty clear on this:

He taught me how to tell a story with pictures and that it didn’t always involve the best image. I’d say to him, “But isn’t this a better photo?” And he’d say, “Yes, child, but this photo tells the story better.” For him, it wasn’t about the aesthetics of photography. It was about storytelling.
—Lesley Vinson

So if your photo isn’t technically perfect, don’t get hung up about it. And equally, don’t get hung up on having the “perfect” camera either…

4) You don’t need an amazing camera to take amazing photographs

Bill famously waited for as long as possible to make the switch from analogue to digital photography. (Which probably made life harder than it needed to be for him and his assistant). Even then, he had a Nikon FM2 and a 35 prime lens. Nothing fancy, just a solid workhorse of a camera.

Don’t use not having the “right” equipment as an excuse for not going out and taking photos.

You can still practice your technique. You can still train your eye. And you can still take photos which capture the essence of a moment.

5) It’s not who you are, it’s what you do that counts

Bill didn’t care if you were famous, he just cared how you wore your clothes

I’m not interested in the celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes. It’s the clothes, not the celebrities, and not the spectacle.

Which meant that anyone on the street was worthy of being photographed — if they had their own sense of style.

We’re in the age of the cookie-cutter sameness. There are few that are rarities, someone who doesn’t look like 10 million others.

6) You can cycle anywhere, and you don’t need a fancy bike to do it

Of course, it wasn’t just Bill Cunningham’s photography that resonated with me. There was something else that made him magnetic…

His preferred mode of transport was a bicycle.

The story goes that Bill owned a series of 28 or so bicycles which were also being stolen… all of them fairly basic machines to get him from A to B.

If Bill could cycle the streets of Manhattan in his eighties, you can probably cycle where you are.


Further reading:
Bill Cunningham on Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham Obituary

Posted to Features
by James Greig

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