We’ve all seen paparazzi photos of celebrities in a “realistic” way. They know they’ll be photographed, so they dress up in a strategic (and eye-catching) outfit, usually done by a professional stylist. But the next time you’re wandering around Manhattan and hear the sound of a camera shutter, keep an eye out for photographer Johnny Cirillo — because he’s probably taking your picture, not a celebrity’s.
On her Instagram page, @watchingnewyork, Cirillo enjoys photographing casual, stylish New Yorkers and giving them paparazzi. No stylists, no glamorous team: Cirillo loves capturing real people with real style. Cirillo would take uniquely relevant photos across the city — sometimes surreptitiously photographing his subjects from half a city block, thanks to a 200mm lens — and then get their permission to use and upload their photos onto his page, where his 233,000 followers are obsessed with photographing people’s different personal styles. So far, Cirillo has captivated fashionistas with her blue sequin dresses (combined with cowboy boots!), retro baker’s hats, and flowing pleated pants, among other standout pieces.
Consider “Seeing New York,” your new, eclectic mood board of inspirational outfits to try on, and his archive of lewks has only grown since he launched it in 2016. Best of all, each upload essentially serves as a snapshot into New York’s own signature fashion taste, and in a way more organic than the standard Instagram-appropriate photos. your. In other words, there are a lot of details about the wearable style. Below, Vogue chatted with Cirillo to discuss when he started shooting street style, how he got the perfect shot, and his favorite encounters.
What made you want to start Watching New York?
I was and still am a longtime fan of the late great Bill Cunningham. I’m usually at my wife’s office on the 55th and 5th, and I expect him to take action. Sadly, I never did. On the day he passed away [in 2016], I thought shooting streetwear like he did all those years would be my way of honoring him. It was my first day of street shooting and I never stopped.
Your image feels like a paparazzi. Was that intentional?
I decided early on that if I was going to shoot New Yorkers, I didn’t want to shoot with a wide, close-up lens of their faces. I started using a 200mm lens so that I could be half a city block away from the subject. It’s similar to how the paparazzi shoot and all my subjects are celebrities to me, so it fits that aspect.
What is your favorite part of attracting people?
For years, I have filmed weddings and events. I always enjoy capturing happy moments between the two of you. There is an extra layer to capture happy moments on the street. You are dodging traffic, moving around pedestrians. It looks more real. I love having real moments — romance and laughter.
Any funny stories from taking pictures of people?
That’s why I started asking permission from everyone I photographed: I once took a beautiful photo of a couple holding hands, looking at each other lovingly, and shared it on my Instagram. Got a great response, until I got a DM: “This is me in the photo. My girlfriend and I are huge fans of the site, but unfortunately that’s not my girlfriend! “
In all the years and all the people I’ve photographed, I’ve also been exposed exactly once — and that’s because one of my favorite actors just won an Oscar.