Photographer Robbie Quinn on “Street Unicorns” and New York’s Unique Styles
“Fashion is created by designers and sold to the public,” says Robbie Quinn, “but style is how you wear it – it’s an expression of who you are inside.”
Quinn examines all kinds of self-expression in his new book “Street Unicorns,” a delightful compilation of the many unique fashionistas he’s found in New York and abroad. Subtitled “Bold Expressionists of Style,” the book combines beautifully realized photos with quotes from the subjects, whom he encountered randomly but frequently called back for additional shots.
Quinn, a man of singular style himself, has not always been a photographer. Years ago he played keyboards in a band – The Score – which he thought would last much longer than he did.
But, in a story that isn’t exactly original, they sparked the label’s interest in parting ways before they could sign a deal. Having been the band’s businessman, Quinn had enough experience to land a job in the music business, which led him to become a concert producer himself in Florida, then a manager in Nashville.
“I was really bad at managing artists,” he admits, but the photos he took of his acts got him a job as a photographer.
He photographed everything – groups, weddings, families, product still lifes – but turned to portraits and eventually ended up in New York, where he was when he got a call at 4 a.m. to travel to Las Vegas to shoot promotional photos for Jon Bon Jovi.
Corporate shoots pay the bills these days, but street shots are what he focuses on.
“I always shoot like I’m shooting an album or a magazine cover,” he says. “The people I photograph are like street rock stars.”
Some of the images are seven years old, but most are from 2016 and older – and many were taken in the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic changed his style a bit, as he went from a wide-angle lens to a portrait lens so he didn’t have to stand so close to the subject.
There was no shortage of subject matter at the time, as he believes “people felt compelled to come off and be seen during the pandemic.”
Quinn’s subjects come from all over town, but he notes that there are stylistic differences between downtown and lower 14th Street.
“The Upper East Side tends to be dapper, while the East Village has more tattoos, with style to match,” he notes. “People are definitely more adventurous downtown. I tend to plan my itinerary based on the restaurants I want to go to and many of my favorites are downtown.
The book project began a few years ago with the help of Carol Dietz, who was art director at the New York Times when Quinn first photographed her on the street. Along with having a wonderful personal style, Dietz knew how to shape a project.
“Carol was pivotal in creating the book. She believed in what I was doing,” Quinn says.
Dietz has a history with fashion and photography, having worked with the legendary Bill Cunningham for years.
“Since the age of 15, I have been sewing and designing my own clothes,” she says. “Years later at The New York Times, I designed fashion layouts with Bill Cunningham. When Robbie asked me to help him with ‘Street Unicorns’, I was up for the challenge. I am honored to have contributed to the design and also to appear in the book.
An early version of the book existed in Dietz’s apartment, taped to his wall.
Cunningham’s legacy is an obvious comparison, but Quinn will have none of it.
“Cunningham is second to none,” he said. “There was only one and there never will be. This is sacred ground – I wouldn’t want to be compared to him.
Nevertheless, comparisons are inevitable and the result is not unfavorable.
Mark Bozek, who produced a documentary about Cunningham, hosted the book launch at his Live Rocket studios at the South Street Seaport. The room was filled with Quinn’s “unicorns,” many of whom wore the same outfits they were photographed in for the book and were quick to praise the photographer.
The Twink Next Door gushed, “He’s given me some of the best pics on my social media!”
“I often have my picture taken in the street, but Robbie has a very good eye, he knows what he is doing!” added Veronica, half of the idiosyncratic fashionistas.
ReBLACKaFORTheBLACKs recalls how happy she was when Quinn let her know she would be on the cover. “He said my picture reflected the spirit of the book.”
Four-year-old Akira told us she was “excited to be in the book,” then admitted her parents choose her clothes.
Rodolphe Lachat, the book’s publisher, noted that “it’s very easy to make a beautiful book when the artist has so many beautiful images”.
For Quinn, the launch was “spectacular!”
“That was perhaps the most rewarding part of the project,” he said, “watching people with very different styles come together, find common ground, and leave with new friends.”
While he acknowledges that this kind of personal freedom isn’t possible everywhere, he hopes “people won’t be afraid to be the most authentic themselves, even at the risk of being criticized, because everything else is a lie”.