The photo and fashion world lost an icon this past weekend with the sad news of Bill Cunningham’s death following a recent stroke. For nearly 40 years, Cunningham worked for and at The New York Times creating the genre of street fashion photography that has spawned many imitators.
In a world obsessed with the newest cameras, high speed sync, 14 fps, and 104,000 ISO, Cunningham was an honest breath of fresh air.
Cunningham didn’t bother with that mumbo jumbo. For many years, he used a fully manual Nikon FM2, before partially succumbing to a digital camera – a lowly Nikon D40x with its 10MP sensor and max 1600 sensitivity. Cunningham’s photos were often poorly framed, slightly soft, and grainy – the type of photo that might be eviscerated in a photo critique. He was not a technical photographer.
But Cunningham’s photography was a study in humankind. He was not the musical child prodigy filled with preternatural technique, but lacking in soul and experience. He was a man who knew his city, but was still excited to discover its evolving fabric on a daily basis. As The New Yorker theatre critic, Hilton Als, wrote, “Camera aside, part of what made Cunningham such an extraordinary person was the fact that he saw us [gays], just as he saw women and all those ‘others.’”
“Camera aside.” No better description of a photographer could be written.
What he lacked in technique, he more than made up with humble dedication and a joie de vivre in his work. He was a New York icon – the kind of person whose passing we individually mourn even though we might not have known him personally. His contribution to photography won’t be measured by a single photo, but by his entire corpus and how he conducted himself as a person.
There will be other songs to sing,
Another Fall, another Spring,
But there will never be another you.