Bill Cunningham Is A Dirty Paparazzo


Bill Cunningham Is A Dirty Paparazzo

As the release of Richard Press’ documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” nears, the fickle fashion world is abuzz. “His work is pure art!” they cry. “He is a seminal genius!” they proclaim. And as part of the fickle fashion world ourselves, we too are waiting like nervous teenage girls for its release. But while we neither dispute the niceness of his work nor his extraordinary work ethic, it must be said that Cunningham is a dirty paparazzo.

And everyone knows what we think about the paparazzi. They killed Princess Diana! They won’t leave let poor Lindsay Lohan be! And we eat their images voraciously, without so much as a grain of salt. But if, say, Anna Wintour was to stumble into a manhole to her untimely death while desperately posing for Mr. C (or Scott Schumann for that matter), would the world collectively blame the photographer? Probably not. They’d deride poor Anna’s clumsiness.

Yet, from Marcello Gepetti’s gorgeous immortalization of the likes of Liz Taylor and Brigitte Bardot to the dolce vita imagery of Elio Sorci to the risk-taking Ron Gallela’s hard-to-get photos, the great paparazzi languish in obscurity. It would be cultural heresy to consider their images art, reduced, as they always are, to voyeuristic violations relegated to trashy websites and disposable publications. It seems that Cunningham, has managed to subvert praxis to function as a paparazzo, photographing fleeting moments in the lives of celebrated people, all while being something altogether different to the wider world. And therein lies his seminal genius, it would seem. There would be no The Sartorialist without Bill Cunningham.

Now, this critique is not a cheap shot at Cunningham himself. For his almost complete lack of pretence, compellingly modest lifestyle and genuine journalistic interest in the capricious world of street fashion, he’s a bang-up kind of professional. And nothing can be said about him if not that he’s an extraordinarily dedicated, hard worker with a particularly charming personality (like most great photographers whose principal subject is people). His photos themselves are almost beside the point, however, as he occupies the enviable position of paparazzo-nobody-would-dream-of-calling-paparazzo, comfortably inside the bounds of the velvet rope. After all, his lengthy career was unknown outside New York fashion circles until personalities like the aforementioned Schumann burst onto the e-scene…

True, a great deal of the people he shoots are actually street-level hoi polloi with penchants for style. But as the majority of his work was mostly before the era of hourly blog fixes and the cocaine-like collective addiction to self-promotion, his crescendo of fame has mostly been a function of who (and that’s who’s who, for lack of a better term) he’s been able to photograph. Consider that the same people who might run away from the flashes out of exasperation flock to Cunningham because they’re dying to be validified by his lens.

Bill Cunningham New York Trailer from Gavin McWait on Vimeo.

And this in turn makes it abundantly clear that genuine celebrity has become an anachronism. Even today’s most famous face becomes lost in the crowd without constant reminders of its importance, both because fame is now more democratic and because our attention spans have crashed and burned. The flame of celebrity thus requires constant stoking to (transitorily) cement its tenuous existence. And as many an art critic might muse, instead of the paparazzo’s camera-as-assault rifle, Cunningham wields his camera-as-Midas’ phallus. His subjects are just begging to have a go at it. His fame and that of his celebrity subjects are mutually beneficial, much like the beautiful friendship your stomach has with lactobacillus. Susan Sontag would have had a field day with this one.

Tag Christof