January 13, 2018
Last night Denver was fortunate to host the opening of On The Street With Bill Cunningham, a photo exhibition at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC). CPAC partnered with the New York Times for the show and featured special guest Tina Loite, a photo editor who worked closely with Cunningham in the New York Times’ Style section. The place was packed, speaking to the popularity of Cunningham’s populist fashion reporting style and his long career as an unassuming photographer on the streets in New York City.
In case you’re fully insulated from the goings on out East, Bill Cunningham was best known for his candid photographs of stylish women and men on the streets of New York City. As CPAC Executive Director Samantha Johnston explains, Cunningham had an “eye for detail and uncanny ability to wait for the right moment.” She writes, “Not only was he a talented photographer, writer, and tireless editor, but he brought incredible passion and joy to his work. He’s someone we can all learn from.”
I can’t agree more. I only spent an hour perusing the various New York Times spreads, some colorfully crowded with vertically cropped images of folks striding into view, others simple arrangements of detail shots of men’s hairstyles or womens’ accessories, all accented with a block of Cunningham’s descriptive prose in the middle, put it felt like I had just completed a semester of photography class. Here’s are a few lessons I feel like I gleaned from spending a little time with the work of this delightful photographer.
An hour with Cunningham’s spreads was like a trip to the optometrist. I felt like my vision had been corrected. For the rest of the night after leaving the show I couldn’t stop assessing the dress of every passerby. Details popped, colors and shapes were more pronounced, and the scene before me seemed more alive and interesting. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the city’s real fashion sensibility. I was noticing how we dress, which was something I hadn’t really paid attention to before.
Cunningham was a master of observation and organization. You can tell from his collected works that he was always juggling a host of projects, mentally noting the trends he was observing in the people around him, tracking the changes he found as he visited the same area over and over. Cunningham’s work made me realize the importance of observing the patterns in the things around me and the beauty of our collective expressions of individual style.
At a local brew pub in downtown Denver, for instance, most of the patrons were dressed in drab winter colors, especially greys and blacks. If you softened your gaze, patterns popped out. Two women were wearing sweaters with almost identical black and white strips, a nuance overlooked before the show. If I had a camera in hand I would have been tempted to focus on that pattern as a subject, and then spend my night looking for more examples. Also, against the dull colors of the collected crowd a few flashes of color were interspersed. I noticed that most of the colorful jackets in the crowd were of the outdoorsy down type, marked by their shiny material and horizontal stitched baffles. Seeing the patterns in the room helped me recognize the “figure to ground” relationships that existed in the room.
I guess the main lesson here is to go out with an idea of what you want to find, and then to be hyper observant to the patterns, shapes, and colors that the world offers up. If you’re like Cunningham and you can juggle a number of objectives at once, then the game of organizing the world around you into an expression of your observations could present a lifetime of interesting projects.
One of the most interesting things about Cunningham’s layouts was that they often incorporated snapshots he had taken of art or architecture that acted as a foil to the point he was trying to make about a fashion trend he was following. These snapshots we strictly utilitarian, and were often fuzzy or poorly cropped. More than anything, they upped the interest level of Cunningham’s subject matter because they gave visual support to the idea he was developing. These unassuming additions also demonstrated that Cunningham’s knowledge of history, art, and architecture was encyclopedic.
Cunningham’s photographic spreads are a visual notebook expressing his ideas, but it’s important to consider the importance of the text blurbs ringed by the his photos. Cunningham was a solid writer, and the combination of words and photos can have the same effect on the viewer that a well written poem can. Poems have a way of transmitting an authors thoughts almost telepathically, and I would say that Cunningham’s spreads have the same effect. They’re like a conversation, and the personality of the person you’re talking with comes across loud and clear.
Lesson? Read books. Study art. Take classes. Converse. Stay informed. Then mix it all up in a soup the way you would film and developer. Cunningham’s work teaches me that worldliness is a virtue and that the development of word-craft and photographic craft should go hand in hand.
Finally, it’s safe to say that Cunningham was not a technician when it came to photography and he didn’t really care what camera he was shooting. His camera selection was as plebian as his nondescript bicycle. One of the first things I noticed when I looked closely at his layouts was that a fair number of his shots were poorly focused or grainy the way low resolution photos look when they are cropped too tight. Still, with Cunningham’s work the quality of the image looses importance because there’s so much to appreciate in the whole rather than the single photo.
I can honestly say, and I hope some day I’ll take this to heart since I’m still in the throws of gear covetousness and GAS, that the camera you shoot has nothing to do with the impact you have as a photographer. Bill Cunningham’s work reminds me of this truth. Of course it would be easy to restrict myself to my Nikon EM, and in so doing I might become more like Bill, but the deeper challenge is to find the sort of passion and commitment he had to his subject. Finding that and executing a vision with the fidelity of someone like Bill Cunningham is no mean feat, to be sure, and that’s why he’s truly one of a kind.
Top Photo: Jiyang Chen