On Bill Cunningham’s Lack of Technique

On Bill Cunningham’s Lack of Technique

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.

 

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. David May at 11:51 pm

    What do you boof heads mean “Lack of technique”, he had more technique in his little finger than the lot of you put together and if you DO NOT REALISE THAT then you are NOT a photographer.
    The most important thing to remember about Mr Cunningham is in Paris a couple of years ago he was covering Fashion week, some young person would not let him in to a show, he did not argue or insist but another person from the show came forward brushed them aside and told her, THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD. Oh the French also gave him a medal for his contribution to the arts.
    So much for no technique.
    Shame on you, shame ShameShame!!!

  2. David May at 11:58 pm

    If you knew anything about this incredible man you would know and inderstand the incredible contribution he has made to photography, no not by being a instagram celebrity or a facebook guru or even a Twitter Twitter.
    Do you actually know anything about this person?

  3. David May at 12:54 am

    Allen
    I did read the piece and I still say that you are boof head if you think that Bill Cunningham did not have technique, you obviously know nothing about this incredible person and image creator that he was. it is you whom most probably lacks technique and this is why you CRITIQUE instead of CREATE, look at Bill’s historical work.
    Or perhaps best of all you should take the time to watch the docunmentary made about him a few years ago.
    All the people he worked with also said he had “no technique”.
    What is going to be your legacy a web site to store other peoples creations?
    Do you think anyone will remember you in 10 let alone 20 years time.

      • Lawrence Hudetz at 11:55 am

        His last message confusing.

        “All the people he worked with also said he had “no technique”.”

        Um, errr.

        Anyway, how does anyone make consistent, perhaps less than perfect images technically, with a 35mm camera and such without having some technique? A manual camera has to be “SAFE” set (Shutter, Aperture Focus, Expose) every frame. And to be consistent with it and on mental autorun. To play the piano, that means scales which translates to technique. I know no human endeavor which does not require some technique.

        How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice practice.

        That’s mastery.

  4. Steve Simon at 2:15 pm

    And then there’s his ethics….ethics are something that never go out of style…but I don’t know any journalist who adhered to such a strict code as Mr. Cunningham…he wouldn’t even accept a glass of water from his hosts. His work was his own. In an era of measuring a photographers’ worth with LIKES and FOLLOWERS…he was passionate about his work for all the right reasons. I don’t know him but like so many others I saw him chaining up his bike one day…I had to say hello–he was friendly and exactly what I expected from the movie. I admired him and miss him. One of a kind.

  5. Philip at 5:36 pm

    when you show your work -that is your technique- what he showed us is what he does -that is his technique- if you don’t like what he does ,then you can say you don’t like his technique but you can’t say he doesn’t have a technique because if you see his work / his technigue is what you are seeing .

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 7:10 pm

      I don’t want to get into a semantic battle over a photographer whom we all seem to hold in the utmost regard. My point, which I still stand behind, is that Bill was not a technical photographer. Sure, he had his own “technique” (which I think is better referred to as his style, but again, semantics), but I think you’d be hard pressed to find another NYT staffer (including himself) who would consider him a technical photographer – that is, the type of photographer preoccupied with ISO, shutter speeds, aperture, lenses, resolving power, autofocus systems, focus stacking, dragging the shutter, gear, etc.

  6. Cooper at 3:23 pm

    It’s hard to find people who truly enjoy the work they do every day and you can tell that Bill absolutely loved documenting the fashion scene in New York.

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