Legendary Fashion Photographer BILL CUNNINGHAM Dies at 87
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Bill Cunningham, fashion’s leading runway documentarian and street-style photographer whose work for The New York Times influenced generations, passed in New York today at the age of 87. He had been hospitalized earlier after suffering a stroke.
For nearly 40 years ‘Bill’, as he preferred to be called, documented runway collections and those that attended them, as well as galas, events, and global street style. His work chronicled runway shows for the likes of downtown publications Visionarie, Details, and Paper Magazine as well as street style for The New York Times before ‘street-style’ was even a term.
“The entire concept of street style photography would never exist without the vision of Bill Cunningham. He was the ultimate voyeur – the consummate editorial eye that could see something interesting in everyone’s individual expression of style. He understood that fashion was a universal language and his legacy of reportage storytelling will forever be remembered!” – Trey Laird, Chief Creative Officer | Laird+Partners
He was ever the consummate gentleman who in his uniform of a blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers operated beyond the fray of the fashion system charting his own path typically via a bicycle. Never one for fashion’s political ecosystem, Mr. Cunningham unassumingly focused purely on the integrity of his work while championing new creative fashion talents. While attending numerous events as a photographer, he never partook in the events themselves, refusing even a glass of water when offered.
He lived what many may perceive as a monastic lifestyle. Up until 2010 he slept on a single-size cot in a studio above Carnegie Hall showering in a shared bathroom. Instead of furnishings he surrounded himself with rows of file cabinets which held his archive of negatives. He didn’t go to movies or own a television and ate the same breakfast nearly every day while in New York at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street.
The second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family, William John Cunningham Jr. was born on March 13, 1929, in Boston. He was first introduced to fashion as a teenager working part-time job at department store Bonwit Teller. A scholarship afforded him the opportunity to attend Harvard in 1948 but he dropped out after a few months deciding to move to New York City to work with his uncle in advertising.
His affinity for fashion soon had him quitting advertising to launch a hat collection under the name “William J.” where he became close friends with the legendary Charles James. He folded his business after being drafted. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he returned to New York to write for The Chicago Tribune. Shortly afterward he began to freelance for Women’s Wear Daily but quit after an argument with its publisher, John Fairchild.
In 1967 Mr. Cunningham purchased his first camera and began taking pictures of people in the streets earning assignments for The Chicago Tribune and The Daily News, later becoming a regular contributor to The New York Times. It wasn’t until a bike accident in 1994 forced the need for health insurance that he accepted the Times repeated offer to take a staff position.
After years of documenting shows and events, Mr. Cunningham became inadvertently something of a fashion icon himself with designers assuring him front row seats for their shows, accolades from adoring fans, and autograph seekers.
In 1993 he was awarded the CFDA Eugenia Sheppard Award for fashion journalism riding his bike onstage to accept the award. Presenter Liz Smith explained, “It’s an award that Bill Cunningham hasn’t sought, probably doesn’t want and is only accepting so as not to hurt our feelings. . . . He calls himself a lowly photographer with great subjects. Some of us see it as exactly vice versa.” Donning a tuxedo opposed to his traditional attire Mr. Cunningham took his statue and announced, “I’m here, and I haven’t sold out to the establishment. This side of the footlights is very strange to me. I prefer lurking in the shadow. The fun is stealing your shadows and showing them to the readers of The New York Times each Sunday.”
His work was highly regarded internationally and in 2008 he was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in Paris. In 2009, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
In 2010, director documentary film maker Richard Press convinced Mr. Cunningham to allow a film to made of him. After months of postponing or canceling shoots, Bill Cunningham New York, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to rave reviews. Mr. Cunningham never saw the film. He did however photograph those who attended the opening. Publishing the photos of those attending but never calling attention to what or who they were celebrating.
Fashion’s leading man, moral compass and the saint of street style will sorely be missed.
On a personal note, as a young designer in the 90’s Bill Cunningham’s words of encouragement and support gave me the courage to weather storms. Without his kindness, warmth, and worldly wisdom my journey would likely of lead down another path. I am forever indebted to his generosity and will forever strive to offer that same encouragement to others because of him. He touched so many and the industry and the world is left better for it. – Kenneth Richard