An Insight Through the Lens of Bill Cunningham

Posted by Rachael Towne on

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Photographers take note because I am going to take you into one of the most legendary American fashion photographers for the New York Times, Bill Cunningham, who is known for his street photography. It doesn’t matter what type of photography you prefer to shoot, these tips based on his fifty years of experience need to be added to your Photography Bible.

About Bill Cunningham

Cunningham is 86 years young and has been in the photography business for over 50 years. He bravely photographs people and what their wearing in the streets of Manhattan every day. The result is showcased in the New York Times of the latest trends worn by the everyday person.  

In 2008, he was awarded the Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. This award is to recognize the significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields. In 2012, Cunningham received the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence. The award is to honor Cunningham for his commitment to chronicling fashion as well as inspiring philanthropy and recognizing the important place that arts, culture, and non-profit causes hold in the life of New York City.

When you hear about Cunningham, you feel his underlying passion for fashion. Yet, the true aid in following his passion, is sharing what he sees with his ‘readers’ and to tell his story, he does this through photography. Spending each day on the streets capturing that fashionable piece that speaks through his lens. Cunningham simply loves what he does. He is not afraid to walk up close to capture a woman’s shoes or take a photo from afar of a woman crossing the street, Cunningham has an eye for fashion and knows how to get the best shot to make it shine. 

Ten lessons that you can learn from Bill Cunningham 

  1.  What’s your passion?

I know your first answer is photography. You need to think deeper. What do you love to take photographs of? What will make you want to wake up every day for the next fifty years and take photographs? Find that something you are passionate about that you can capture differently every time. How can you make it interesting and provide your own unique stamp to it? What is your passion? Start shooting this.

This can be a scary a question to ask yourself but it is important. Sometimes we fear asking what our true heart desires are in fear that somebody will laugh at us. The truth is, you won’t feel fulfilled and you won’t produce your best work, until you follow your heart. 

  1. Where do you feel inspired?

Another lesson learned by watching Cunningham’s love for photography, is finding the best location to take the photo. Cunningham openly admits, he prefers not to take photos of celebrities, he would rather take his camera to the streets and see the real fashion from those walking by. 

I don't photograph them (celebrities). They don't dress so... interestingly. They have stylists. I prefer real women who have their own taste.

Where do you take the best photos? It’s true, if you travel the same road every day you will find something you haven’t seen before. You don’t have to travel to the big top shot locations to get the best photographs, go where you feel inspired. 

  1. Think about your audience

When Cunningham picks up his camera, he thinks about the readers and how they will visualize the fashion on themselves. In order for the reader to want the same fashion style, Cunningham has to create the picture to make the fashion piece speak to the reader’s heart. 

The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don't see at the fashion shows. You find information for readers so they can visualize themselves.” 

When you start shooting, think about who your audience is? What do you want them to feel when they see your images? 

  1. If photography is what you want to do, do it every day.

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Watching his biography, in the movie titled, Bill Cunningham New York, you get an insight into the quirky, young at heart photographer, whose aim in life is to capture the essence of his passion and share it with others in the brightest of lights. He always has a smile on his face and I’m sure it’s because he is following his heart’s truest desires. 

As a creative, you want to have the guts to do what you love. 

Cunningham shows you that it is not only possible to live your dreams but if you spend time on your passion daily, your whole outlook on life will change and your confidence will grow as will your talent.  

  1. Keep your integrity

For fifty years, Cunningham has taken his love for photography to a new level. Although he spends his whole day working by taking photos in sometimes perfect weather conditions to not always perfect weather. He’ll be out in the rain, with his rain coat as are the fashionista’s are out with their umbrella’s, running in heels to cross the road to get indoors. When it comes to perks that many photographers and fashion journalists enjoy, Cunningham feels strongly about staying a ‘free agent.’ Including when he flies to Paris, he pays his own way. 

This way, I don't do what they want, I do what I want." 

Perhaps, in your case, you have a family to feed, you don’t have to go to this extreme. Accept the money but don’t be afraid to do it your way. If a job tests your integrity, leave it or stand up for yourself. 

  1. Don’t let self-doubt kill your drive

Bashful Cunningham doesn’t feel he is a good photographer, he mentioned in his biography, 

The problem is I'm not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I'm too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I'm not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That's all there is to it. 

He doesn’t allow his confidence in his perceived abilities to stop doing what he wants to do in life, instead he does what he loves to do. It’s easy to let self-doubt stop you from starting but it’s important that you just give it a go anyway. The more photos you take, the more creative you’ll be and your skills will grow. 

  1. For creative ideas, get outdoors

Another tip for photographers and many creatives out there is to simply get outside and explore, letting the ideas come to you. Ideas can only form when your state of mind is open to receiving them. If you are annoyed or frustrated, ideas become blocked. 

Cunningham said, “I go out every day. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I'm on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me. 

Some days, it can be frustrating when you just can’t get the idea on how to make a photo work. It’s those times, when it’s important to get out of your working space and get outside, if only for a walk. Notice the sky, the trees and the flowers. Don’t think about the photography. The ideas will then start to flood in quick and fast. Be sure to pack a notepad to jot them down. 

  1. You don’t have to be cashed up to start

Use what works. New photographers wanting to make a living as a professional photographer, may feel they are a professional if they buy the latest, most expensive equipment. Excellent photography can still be captured through the simpler cameras.  

I started photographing people on the street during World War II. I used a little box Brownie. Nothing too expensive,” said Cunningham. 

Perhaps it’s the perception when booked in for a photography shoot that you want your client to consider you a professional by the look of your equipment. The truth is, if your images capture the true essence of what they/you want, then it doesn’t matter what equipment you have, it’s all about the result. Therefore, don’t worry about your lower budget equipment, chances are your clients won’t even know what the latest piece of technology is. Plus, you can always upgrade once you start to see a regular source of income from your work. 

  1. Be courageous

Sometimes, as creatives, we play it safe. We have a well-paid photographing job but there comes a time when you want to push yourself, challenge yourself and worry about what your client will say after you submit it. Never don’t do something in fear that they won’t like it or accept it. Do it, love it and submit it. This could be your best work. Go for it, submit it and just wait to see their response. If it’s rejected, do something else but be sure to keep it. This is your reminder to yourself that you went for it. 

Cunningham took a chance photo of Greta Garbo, which was published as a group of photos in the Times in 1978. It was the first time the Times had printed photos of renowned people, without their permission. His group of pictures soon became a regular series. 

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     10. When all else fails, take photos

It’s interesting how we might have a specific plan of our life and yet life pushes us in other directions to finally get to where we need to be. At the 2014 New York Fashion Week, Cunningham recalled that before his photography career, he dropped out of Harvard University and when working as a writer for the New York Times, his editor Gloria Emerson said he was ‘hopelessly illiterate.’ Can you imagine if Cunningham kept trying to work hard on skills that were not his true calling? If he didn’t become a fashion photographer? It’s best not to imagine it. 

Hence, if your current career doesn’t make your heart sing, then you need to find your true calling. If its photography and you don’t want to leave your day job until you have enough photography paid work to move on to, then be sure to still take photos daily. Do what you have to do at the time you have to do it in. For example, if you are at the train station about to catch a train to your day job and see this exciting shot that you think will look remarkable. Just take the photo. Sometimes your best work, is the most spontaneous and least thought out.

Another point about time is as many self-employed/freelancers notice that they have so much more they can do with their work but don’t have the time to do it. Cunningham has spent his entire days for the last fifty years trying to find more time or sunlight in the day to capture more and more photos. Waking up each day to start again, excited to see what new fashion the day will bring. It shows, that your passion to do more and more means you are on the right track, you just need to find a way to not achieve it all but just do what you can in the hours you have.    

It’s important when you see the success of others, you see the hard work and many years/decades they have put into their work. Take the advice of those who have traveled on the path you are about to travel and watch through your lens the beauty of what’s in front of you, unfold.  

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