Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Bill Cunningham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bill Cunningham. Show all posts

Saturday, July 9, 2016


I’ve been trying to find something not too mawkish to say about the photographer Bill Cunningham (op cit in this blog) who died on June 24, aged 87.

I loved his artfully artless photographs.  He worked for The New York Times for about 40 years, and was a cross between a street photographer and a fashion photographer, snapping the fashionable people out in public in Manhattan.  He did some other stuff as well, at parties and balls, but it’s the street stuff that matters.

Cunningham wasn’t one of the great New York walkers (he actually got around by bike mostly) but he was certainly on foot when he took his pictures.   He was certainly a kind of urban explorer, and probably an anthropologist, and maybe even a psychogeographer.

He may not have been looking for, in Debord’s terms, “zones of distinct psychic atmosphere” but he certainly knew where to go to find people who were looking good and wearing fabulous clothes.  And of course he often photographed them while they were walking.

I never saw him when I lived in New York, but I know others who did, some of whom wished he’d take their photograph, but he never did – and I know some snappy dressers.   

He seemed to have had the trick, and maybe we should say gift, of appearing benign and good-natured when he photographed his subjects.  If he wanted to take your picture then you didn’t feel threatened or maligned, you knew you looked good.  Compare and contrast with that other great New York street photographer Bruce Gilden, who creates this effect:.

Even so I’m not sure there are many men who could get away with the kind of thing that’s going on in the picture below:

If most of us tried to photography the feet and shoes of a bunch of women standing on the street in Manhattan, I’m pretty sure the cops would be called.  I think you could probably talk your way out of it, though I wouldn’t advise you to say you were a flaneur, much less a psychogeographer.

Saturday, January 3, 2015


When I was writing The Lost Art of Walking I interviewed a few “street photographers” including Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden.  My simple theory being (simply) that street photographers take a lot of pictures of people walking, and in order to do that they themselves have to do a fair amount of walking too.

One photographer I wanted to interview but didn’t, was Bill Cunningham of the New York Times.  Word on the street, i.e. a couple of people I knew at the New York Times, reckoned that even getting to speak to Bill Cunningham, or at least getting him to speak to me, could be a years long project in itself.  They may have exaggerated, but Richard Press, the director of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, says much the same.  In the booklet accompanying the DVD (which I watched over the holidays) he says it took him 10 years to make the film: 2 years to shoot it, and before that 8 years to persuade Bill to be filmed.

Every Sunday the New York Time contains two features by Bill Cunningham.  One is Evening Hours, and it’s pictures of New York “Society” people at various events and parties.  The whole thing gives me the heebie-jeebies and I wish it were some kind of lacerating view of the vacuity of “Society,” but it just isn’t.

The other feature is titled On the Street, and consists of photographs of street fashions on the sidewalks of New York.  The people here may be vacuous too I suppose, but the end result is wonderful.  The whole project is obsessive and exhaustive and an act of supreme, sustained observation and visual collecting (maybe even that hideous word “curation”).  One picture of a woman in leopardskin may not mean much; but 30 pictures of women in leopardskin that means plenty.

The documentary shows Cunningham on the street taking photographs (he generally favors photographing women rather than men, but not exclusively) and there’s nothing furtive about it.  He just takes pictures, without permission in most cases as far as I can see, sometimes even chasing people down the street.  Most of his subjects seem happy enough to be photographed: some of them in fact seem to be models, either professional or aspiring.  One or two may look absurd in the photographs, but Bill Cunningham hasn’t made them look that way, they did it all by themselves.

Wathing the film it was hard not to be obliquely reminded of that recent video, made by Hollaback! “a nonprofit dedicated to ending street harassment” showing an actress being hassled as she walks on the streets of New York.  

And I suppose Cunningham does harass some of his subjects.  We all know the horror of the male photographic gaze.  However, the documentary shows that he has enormous charm and warmth, and it probably helps that he’s such a benign and sweet looking old man.  And age may have a lot to do with it.  Certainly he’s the least threatening presence you could encounter on the streets of New York. 

Cunningham alas is not a true flaneur since he rides from place to place on his bike, though he does plenty of walking when he gets “on site.”  And these days he’s sufficiently well known that people take photographs of him as he’s working, maybe they even harass him.  Yes – people walking on the street, take photographs of Bill Cunningham walking on the street, taking pictures of people walking on the street.  I like that: I like that a lot.