Bill Cunningham was a fashion journalist for the Chicago Tribune who crossed over into fashion photography by combining street photography with a style anthropology of his own making. His snapshots of clothing trends randomly coalescing on the streets of New York have been a steady and sought after feature of the The New York Times since the 1970s.

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New York Times, “On the Street,” Bill Cunningham.

New York Times, “On the Street,” Bill Cunningham.

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A curious project that he launched in 1968 involved photographing a costumed model in front of older NYC buildings dressed in the fashion of the year the building was built. This eight-year project, titled “Facades,” is the basis for an engaging show currently on display at the Southampton Arts Center on Jobs Lane in Southampton Village.

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Bill Cunningham with models at NYC Courthouse.

Bill Cunningham with models at NYC Courthouse.

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Street photography is a genre of photography wherein characters or objects that appear by chance in a typically urban environment are recorded for posterity as surreptitiously as possible. Diane Arbus and William Eggleston were especially good at this, as have been many others.

Slowly this genre gave way to a more staged format with the same appearance as street photography. The complicated reasons for the change have to do, at least in part, with the idea that modernism was becoming exhausted.

Canadian Jeff Wall has turned this kind of setup into an entire genre in the fine art field. His photos are full of actors pretending to be casually in the shot, which probably seems like cheating to street photographers.

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"Overpass" by Jeff Wall, 2001.

"Overpass" by Jeff Wall, 2001.

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The backbone of Cunningham’s show is similar in conception, although I doubt he thought of that way in 1968, long before the idea of staging street photos came into use. Other street photographers probably dismissed his fashion-architecture hybrid as a commercial stunt.

Now, 47 years later, this body of work appears to be curiously in vogue, as the use of actors and costumes in street photography has become the norm.

In execution, Cunningham’s simple idea exceeds his intent, which is ideally the goal of art anyway. As we wander past older period architecture along the avenues, we are not used to thinking of generations of fashion existing concurrently. The overall strangeness of the artist’s images serves to amplify the character of buildings that may have blended into the background. Enliven our sense of architecture by having it contextually intertwined with a costumed model? Pretty clever.

With his ever-present cerulean blue smock and shock of white hair, Cunningham can still be seen scouring the canyons of NYC looking for the next fashion trend. At 86 he is a well-known item around the city, snapping away with his Nikon FM with a disarming smile that gets passersby to pause to pose for him.

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Bill Cunningham.

Bill Cunningham.

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One of the best shots of the show was somewhat unintentional, a snapshot of his regular costume model Editta Sherman sitting inside of a filthy graffiti covered subway car in Victorian-era finery and plumed hat. The contrast is jarring, a portrayal of crude public incivility that had its zenith in the ’70s.

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Editta Sherman riding a 1970’s era NYC subway car to a shoot. Photo by Bill Cunningham.

Editta Sherman riding a 1970’s era NYC subway car to a shoot. Photo by Bill Cunningham.

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In one shot, apparently late ’60s Mod adorned actors pose in front of the oppressive and plain modernist curtain wall at Rockefeller center. Both the clothes and building exude a confidence in the forward motion of society that would soon be lost in post-modern exegesis. The clothes and building vaguely resemble each other, at least in tone.

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Photograph by Bill Cunningham.

Photograph by Bill Cunningham.

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This resemblance can be noted in other shots as well, such as the stately and involved decorative of St. Paul’s Chapel built 1766 to 1796 on Broadway at Vesey.

The costume of the time overlaps with a multifarious décor, as if each part were a separate item unto itself, seen in the building and on the model. This is in sharp contrast to the plain squares fancied in the late ’60s in both building design and fashion.

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Editta Sherman posed at St. Paul’s Chapel built 1766-96 Broadway at Vesey. Photograph by Bill Cunningham.

Editta Sherman posed at St. Paul’s Chapel built 1766-96 Broadway at Vesey. Photograph by Bill Cunningham.

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So many of the women’s outfits from the late 19th century included a large hat with bird feathers jutting out at all angles. These hats added another foot or so to their silhouette and inadvertently show the source for an endearing, chiefly British, slang for women: birds.

These borrowed accessory accents lasted for a good while, judging by one such plumage adorned woman standing in front of a 1930s structure designed as inverted parabolas. The fashionistas seem to have been lagging behind structural design in this one.

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Photograph by Bill Cunningham.

Photograph by Bill Cunningham.

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That these photos were made only in black and white dates from the period, as newspapers were not yet in color, and Cunningham probably never even thought to work in color. In one way, this is unfortunate, as the plumage probably would come to life even more if he had the use of a bouquet of the color spectrum to deliver the idea.

Most of the images at the Southampton Arts Center cause the viewer to linger as they date the styles of architectural to a time of fashion preferences, which is somehow easier to grasp. The images essentially re-date the architecture, much of which suddenly looks strikingly ahead of its time.

Ideas and structures that were hard to place in time suddenly come alive as a capsule of thought and conclusion we might have missed.

BASIC FACTS: "Bill Cunningham: Facades" remains on view through July 12, 2015.
Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton, NY 11968. www.southamptonartscenter.org.

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