Legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham dies, leaving behind a prolific career of street style imagery and a legacy of humility.
Bill Cunningham, revered fashion photographer for The New York Times, has died following a stroke. The worlds of fashion, art and photography are in mourning for a man who defined street style, captured life in its rawest form and remained throughout, one of the most humble and graceful creative geniuses of our time.
Cunningham is beloved for his column On the Street for The New York Times, where has documented the fashion of the street for forty years. “The street speaks to me,” he said. While he has captured the faces and outfits of society’s most upper echelons, he true interest was in what people of the street were wearing, from the way of shoe was laced to the angle of a hat. He cared for the way people wore things – not who wore them. “Most of all we will remember the vivid, vicacious New York he captured in his photos,” says Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
He is praised for his focus and unwavering passion for his craft. “If you were in the way of someone he wanted to photograph, he would climb over you to get it,” says Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper magazine. “He was like a war photographer that way, except that what he was photographing were clothes.” At parties and events, Cunningham is renowned for refusing to participate in any of the action, simply wishing to do his job to the best of his ability. “There were so many remarkable things about Bill Cunningham, but what I loved about him most was his refusal: refusal to take a seat that was offered, a drink, or a dinner. He barely ever sat down, unless a fashion show was starting – he just kept moving. Didn’t Coco Chanel say, ‘Elegance is refusal’? Bill was the most elegant of all.” When he felt like his job was done, Cunningham would leave.
The prolific photographer is further admired for his discretion and anonymity. He once said, “At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera – to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.” Street style photographer and blogger Garance Dore wrote on her Instagram: “All his life he was able to keep that fire and the perfect distance from his subject, distance that allowed him to do the work that he did…I could never touch that level of dedication – and of selflessness. So at the shows, I used to let him go go go and just tried to not get in his way.” He had no care to be in front of the lens, to be revered or famous. By all accounts, he just wanted to take remarkable images and capture the times in his camera.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., The Times’s publisher and chairman, said of his colleague: “His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met. We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
His career boasts numerous recognitions and rewards, despite his reluctance to accept praise. In 2008, the French government awarded Cunningham the Legion of Honour. A year later, the New York Landmarks Conservatory made him a living landmark. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art released a documentary called Bill Cunningham New York, in which Vogue editor Anna Wintour remarks, “I’ve said many times, ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’ You fee he’s the only one who notices or cares how you dress.”
Cunningham was born in Boston in 1929, the second of four children. He received a scholarship to Harvard university but only stayed for two months, claiming that he was “hopeless”. He moved to New York City, where he set up shop, making hats. He worked for Women’s Wear Daily before picking up the camera in 1967. He became a regular contributor to The Times in the late 70s but didn’t take a staff position until 1994, when he needed health insurance following a road accident. His features On the Street, a photographic journal of street style, and his society column Evening Hours are considered one of the crown jewels of The New York Times. The paper and the world’s of fashion and photography have lost one of their brightest jewels and a genuinely lovely man.