Bill Cunningham – A Gifted Street Photographer

Author:  K. Meng Tay

Bill Cunningham died last week at the age of 87.  If you have never heard of Bill Cunningham, you are probably not alone.  He was a photographer, a very successful one for 50 years.  New York City (NYC) named him a living landmark.  The French government honored him with the Legion of Honor.

His usual spot is at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, just outside Tiffany’s in NYC.  His subjects are everyday people who walk past that corner.  He tried to be invisible and discreet.  But, when people recognized him, they want to be photographed by him.  He was unmistakable in his blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers riding a bicycle through town.  His subjects included almost anyone who is someone in the fashion world, whether it’s NYC, Paris or London. They included Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Anna Wintour (editor of Vogue magazine), Diane von Furstenberg, etc.

However, what makes Bill so successful was his photographs of everyday people.  He’d pick a fashion topic and take a series of pictures to highlight his focus.  Most people never noticed him and that’s what differentiated him.  Here is a playlist of some of his photographs from the New York Times:

Bill Cunningham Playlist

What can we learn from Bill Cunningham to be a successful photographer?

  • Tell a story. This is what makes Bill stand out.  While others see people walking the streets, Bill finds a theme and then spin a story around it.  Photography is just a bunch of pictures if there is no story.
  • Passion.  Not only was he telling a story but he was passionate about the story and his subjects.  You can tell by listening to his voice and it showed in his photographs.
  • Be singularly focused on one subject. It’s better to be a Master of One then be a Jack of All Trades.
  • Dare to be different. It’s easy to get carried away by all the beautiful landscape photographs in magazines and websites but Bill picked a topic that he loves and keep working on it.  Some people may have laughed at him early in his career but just read all the accolades he received.
  • Expensive equipment does not guarantee success. Bill used only a simple 35mm camera.  I don’t know if he ever upgraded to digital cameras but I don’t see him carrying a zoom lens or a tripod.  And he rides around the city on a bicycle.
  • Humility and Simplicity. Bill was a very humble and modest person.  Because of his character, he made many friends, including some in the high society of NYC.  He refused to be in the spotlight himself.  He did not think that he is better than his subjects and therefore, they willingly allow themselves to be photographed.
  • Money is not everything. He tore many of the checks that were given to him.  He refused payment sometimes.  He could’ve been wealthy if he wanted to but instead he lived in a studio apartment with one bed and filing cabinets of his photographs.
  • Patience and Timing. He must have researched his subjects and waited for the right moment.  As any professional photographer will tell you, timing is everything.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the success of Bill Cunningham, especially if photography is your livelihood.  For those of us mere amateurs, we can only hope that someone would even look at our pictures.

Here are some more articles about Bill Cunningham in the New York Times:

Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87
Bill Cunning on Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham Looked for Subjects. And They Looked for Him.