Photographing Street Style: Bill Cunningham and Beyond

Brent Luvaas

Article

DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA005

Abstract

Whether started by New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, or extending much further back, street-style photography has become an increasingly influential medium within the global fashion industry, with hundreds of bloggers now documenting the real-time trends of “real people” throughout the globe. But as the breadth and influence of street style grew between the 1970s and the mid-2000s, its practitioners stuck steadfastly to a set of common photographic conventions, investing street style with an impression of realism lacking in other forms of fashion photography. In this article, those conventions—labeled as the “straight-up” and the “candid”—are described, explained, and contextualized within street style’s expansive, but still tenuous place within the fashion industry.


From “On the Street” to the Streets Online

Bill Cunningham, the octogenarian New York Times photographer, oft seen cruising the avenues of Manhattan on his trusty Schwinn bicycle, is frequently credited with being “the original street-style photographer.” His weekly Sunday feature in the style section of The New York Times, “On the Street,” began in 1978 with shots of Greta Garbo in a nutria coat, passing “practically unnoticed” on Fifth Avenue. Since then, Cunningham has photographed many of New York’s most recognizable faces, alongside thousands of unknown pedestrians whose outfits just happened to catch his eye. There is something almost democratic about Cunningham’s column. In theory, anyone could show up in “On the Street,” just so long as they happen to be dressed in this season’s trends and in the right part of New York at the right moment in time. In “On the Street,” every subject seems to get equal treatment, positioned almost haphazardly on the page to illustrate a particular theme or trend. “Bag Ladies,” a headline might contend, emphasizing the large, clunky bags preferred by the society ladies of the moment; or “Underalls,” another might say, revealing the resurgence of a long-dormant staple of work attire. In either case, Cunningham’s work is a street-level documentation of changes in fashion as they occur. His catalog of features for The New York Times may very well be the single largest archive of a city’s sartorial history available anywhere. As such, a 2011 documentary entitled Bill Cunningham New York rightly describes Cunningham as a “cultural anthropologist” of style, a continuous presence on the streets of New York, who has forged himself into one of fashion’s greatest authorities as well as one of its least likely icons.

Street Style in Milan Photograph by Niall McInerney, Fashion Photography Archive

Since the time Cunningham started “On the Street” well over three decades back, street-style photography has exploded in popularity. Numerous other newspapers have copied The New York Times’s example, featuring street-level coverage of fashion in their own hometowns. Plus, when alternative fashion magazines like i-D and The Face established street-style sections in the early 1980s, they set up a convention that would later be imitated by many other fashion publications. Magazines employed art and fashion photographers to take images, first of “subcultural” types in hip urban neighborhoods, then of a much broader range of “everyday” people, and street style assumed its place in the fashion photography canon alongside editorial and runway images—even if it held a much less exalted status. Then, towards the end of the twentieth century, cheap digital cameras and free web log (or “blog”) services like Wordpress, Tumblr, and Blogger made it easier than ever before for a wide range of amateur and professional photographers alike to get into the street-style game. Street style was, in essence, democratized, and it began to be seen as a backdoor into professional fashion photography for those without formal photographic training or industry connections. Soon there were hundreds, if not thousands, of street-style blogs. Some of these blogs, by the end of the first decade of the new millennium, were drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors a month and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of sponsorship deals per year, with the top names including Tommy Ton’s Jak & Jil ( jakandjil.com ), Phil Oh’s Street Peeper ( streetpeeper.com ), Garance Doré’s eponymous blog ( garancedore.fr ), and Yvan Rodic’s Facehunter ( facehunter.org , formerly facehunter.blogspot.com ). Scott Schuman, the former menswear director behind The Sartorialist ( thesartorialist.com ), is probably the best known of all of the street-style bloggers. His daily posts of middle-aged Milanese gentlemen and New York fashion moguls, dressed in meticulously tailored attire, bring in well over a million visitors a month. Schuman is rumored to command a seven-figure annual income, mostly from sponsors and advertising campaigns, and he is widely considered one of the most influential voices in the fashion world of the new millennium. It is no wonder, then, that so many new photographers have begun patrolling the streets of trendy neighborhoods in cities the world over in search of street-style images. Some photographers shoot street style as freelance work for fashion publications. Others shoot it to buttress their photographic portfolios, seeking free models on the streets of major metropolitan areas. Still others, like Cunningham before them, see themselves as amateur anthropologists of style, documenting trends as they happen. Nearly all of them, however, hope to follow in Schuman and Cunningham’s footsteps, forging themselves into outsider “experts” on fashion.

There can be little doubt that Bill Cunningham played a sizable role in making street-style photography what it is today, lending it credibility, building its audience, and paving the way for such street-style stalwarts as Scott Schuman and Tommy Ton. But as Cunningham himself would readily admit, he did not invent the genre, nor is he one of the more influential figures among the new crop of street-style photographers. Street-style photography existed well before Cunningham—as an extension of both social documentary and “realist” fashion photography—and the conventions of street-style photography today owe more to turn-of-the-century “social issue” photographers like August Sander, whose straightforward portraits of members of various German occupations and social classes look more strikingly similar to much of the work of Scott Schuman and Phil Oh, than they do to Cunningham’s joyful odes to Greta Garbo and Anna Wintour. Cunningham takes snapshots—without the permission of his subjects and without careful attention to composition and aesthetics. Those, after all, are beside the point. Cunningham is a reporter of style. He shoots what he sees on the streets. Most other street-style photographers today, however, adhere to a strict set of conventions, immediately recognizable as belonging to a distinctive genre, known simply as “street style.”

The Dual Conventions of Street-Style Photography

Street-style photography today can be divided into two basic types, with many photographers borrowing from and combining elements of both in their actual practice: “the straight-up” and “the candid.” The straight-up is most commonly credited to the British alternative fashion magazine i-D, established in 1980, as well as its original street-style photographer, Steve Johnston. It was later elaborated by such noted photojournalists as Amy Arbus and Shoichi Aoki and adopted by early street-style bloggers like Liisa Jokinen, the amateur Finnish photographer behind the influential Hel Looks ( hel-looks.com ) established in 2005. Its roots, however, go much farther back, arguably to the days of early anthropological field expeditions, where anthropologists sought to capture the traditional dress and body alterations of indigenous people in non-Western societies. In these early images, subjects were depicted as if they were medical specimens, shot straight on, with no cast shadows, no stylistic embellishments, and a minimum of artistic license. The same could be said of much of the street-style photography produced today.

Street Style in the 1990s Photograph by Niall McInerney, Fashion Photography Archive

In a prototypical “straight-up” street-style photograph, a subject is positioned as closely to the center of the frame as possible, with somewhat more space above the subject’s head than below her feet. She looks directly at the camera, with no discernible expression on her face, and keeps her arms rigidly at her side. Subjects are sharply in focus, with their full body, head to toe, clearly in view. Backgrounds are relatively neutral. For Johnston, the preferred background was a brick or concrete wall, conveying a sense that the subject was depicted in an urban setting, but providing no superfluous visual information that might distract from the subject herself. For most contemporary street-style photographers, however, the most common background is a street or a sidewalk, receding into the distance in classic three-point perspective. The subject is typically separated from the receding background through a shallow depth of field, achieved by opening the aperture of a lens to one of its largest settings (generally between f1.8 and f3.5). But it is only here that any aspiration toward artistry is evident in the straight-up. The straight-up, in nearly every other sense, is a posed snapshot, as straightforward and unpretentious as fashion photography gets. This is no accident. Straight-ups are meant to be documentary. They simply show us “what is,” or provide the illusion of doing so. The impression of realism is further enhanced in straight-up street-style photography through the use of a 50 mm lens, the focal length closest in perspective to that of the naked human eye.

The straight-up has undergone some alteration over the years—pushing, for instance, towards ever more blurred backgrounds and experimenting with a variety of less constrained poses—but it is still very much the preferred convention of street-style photographers worldwide, observable in the work, for instance, of such noted bloggers/photographers as Alkistis Tsitouri of the Athens-based (now Los Angeles-based) Streetgeist ( streetgeist.com ), Gunnar Hämmerle of Munich’s Style Clicker ( styleclicker.net ), Javi Obando of the Buenos Aires blog On the Corner ( onthecorner.blogspot.com ), and Michelle Oberholzer of Cape Town’s Cinder & Skylark ( cinderandskylark.com ). In each of these blogs, the straight-up photographic convention gives us the impression that we are seeing style in these respective cities “as it really is.” Street-style photography here presents itself as a form of photojournalism or social documentary, and this, of course, is where it differs from most other varieties of fashion photography. It is not, ostensibly, meant to glorify or romanticize its subjects. Nor does it present them as objects to be desired.

The second most common type of street-style photography is “the candid.” In a candid shot, a photographer captures style in motion, as it happens, without stopping a subject to request a pose or asking their permission for the photo. In this, the candid brings to mind the work of Bill Cunningham. And yet candids in street-style photography today look very little like Cunningham’s images. They are much more impressionistic, much moodier, shot in a nostalgic, noir-like style that recalls much of the Parisian street photography of Eugène Atget or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Such shots are taken on crowded city streets or, more commonly, outside major fashion events and runway shows, where a variety of well-dressed individuals are likely to be found. Some candid shots focus on the scene in which a person is embedded. These might feature, for instance, a prominent magazine editor stepping out of a cab or walking up a set of stairs to a show. Or they might feature several male models reclining against a wall smoking. Photographers who prefer to shoot candids, like those who shoot straight-ups, are seeking to demonstrate through their images the reality of what they depict. “This happened,” such images seem to say. “I was there, and I observed it.” But unlike the straight-up, there is no pretense of scientific accuracy in street-style candids. With candids, most photographers seek to capture as elegant an image as possible. They focus on pose, on posture, on meaningful gestures, what Cartier-Bresson referred to as “decisive moments” that epitomize fashion more generally. And to capture such moments, photographers tend to take hundreds of unusable photos, often shot in rapid-fire succession. They burn through images in a quest for the perfect shot in a way simply not possible prior to the advent of the digital camera. The photos are then meticulously sorted through until a sharp image conveying the sought-after mood and attitude are found. Finally, they are cropped and edited to maximize their visual impact. Ironically, then, candids are often far less “candid” than straight-ups. Where straight-ups treat their subjects as specimens, candids treat their subjects as characters in an imagined drama. The resulting images are often cinematic in their scope. Their mood is further enhanced through the preference of candid street-style photographers for 85 mm lenses, with their apertures opened to one of their maximum settings (generally between f1.2 and f1.8) in order to create as shallow a depth of field and as blurred a background as possible. In this, they borrow from wedding portraits and glamour shots, creating a soft, sensuous look that emphasizes style over substance. In most candids shot at fashion weeks between 2010 and 2013, subjects stood before a wall of dense background blur (also known as “bokeh”). There is something almost ominous about many of these images, as if their subjects had just stepped out of, or are about to step into, the void. And yet their most obvious function is celebratory. They romanticize fashion far beyond what straight-ups are able do, and it is for this reason that so many fashion magazines began buying candids from street-style photographers to enhance their own fashion week coverage as early as around 2008.

A number of prominent street-style photographers are known for their candids today, including Adam Katz Sinding ( le-21eme.com ), Youngjun Koo ( koo.im ), Nam ( STREETFSN.blogpspot.com ), and Phil Oh ( streetpeeper.com ). But hands down, the most influential of these photographers is Tommy Ton, the longtime blogger behind Jak & Jil ( jakandjil.com ) and regular contributor to GQ and Style.com , among other venues. Ton’s photographic style is immediately recognizable and is frequently imitated. He specializes in fragments and details, close-up shots of patterns on dresses and jackets, on clashing color combinations and stark contrasts. His work is a mash-up of isolated gestures, ring-filled fingers clenching a cigarette, iconographic fashion editors walking between shows. Tommy Ton’s style of candid became so prominent toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium that it became almost dominant within street-style photography. Photographers who once preferred the straight-up have begun to incorporate candids in the style of Tommy Ton into their work, and new hybrids of the candid and the straight-up have begun to emerge. In Scott Schuman’s more recent work, for instance, subjects are often shot at a distance, leaning into a café counter or slumped into a stairway. They are often looking away from the camera, and it is increasingly difficult to tell if they are aware of being shot at all. In these images, the noir mood of street style is further enhanced, creating an ever wider gulf between the “everyday fashion” that street style once represented and the exclusive looks it now typically features.

But whether street-style photographers prefer the straight-up or the candid, it seems evident that street-style photography has become a significant genre within fashion photography more generally. And as with any genre, it adheres to a fairly strict set of conventions, all of which are designed to lend the impression of immediacy to their resulting images. If editorial photography is meant to seduce, street-style photography is meant to convince. And what it seeks to convince us of above all is its accuracy and its authenticity. It seeks to certify its credentials as the leading representation of “real fashion” today.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Cartier-Bresson Henri. The Decisive Moment . New York : Simon and Schuster, 1952.

Find in Library Cunningham Bill. ““57th and Fifth: A Holiday Magnet for the World”.” The New York Times , 20 December 1978 .

Find in Library Rocamora Agnès, and Alistair O’Neill. “Fashioning the Street: Images of the Street in the Fashion Media.” In Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion, London and New York , edited by Eugénie Shinkle , pp.185–199. London : I. B. Tauris, 2008 .