Bill Cunningham is the New York Times fashion and social photographer who was featured in a 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, and whose pages of street fashion have been running in the Times for decades. Even in his 80s, Cunningham was riding his bicycle through the streets of Manhattan to capture the looks worn by New Yorkers on their way to work or lunch, then taking his film into the NYT, editing the images and recording audio slide shows for the website. Cunningham died Saturday after recently suffering a stroke. He was 87.
The New York Times obituary says that Cunningham's photo essays for the paper "memorialized trends ranging from fanny packs to Birkin bags, gingham shirts and fluorescent biker shorts."
In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham operated both as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.
At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.
In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.
In 2008, Mr. Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed him with the Legion d’Honneur. Back in New York, he was celebrated at Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him, as slight and bony-thin as ever, was installed in the window.
In 2009, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and profiled in The New Yorker, which described his columns On the Street and Evening Hours as the city’s unofficial yearbook, “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”
In 2010, a documentary film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews.
And there's more. Cunningham was single and lived until 2010 in a studio in Carnegie Hall crammed full of file cabinets holding his negatives. He slept on a cot, showered in a shared bathroom, and did not own a TV. His typical work attire was a blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers. I wonder if he was the last New York Times photographer to use film.
In the documentary, he explains why he wears the French smocks and how he obtains them. Here's the trailer.
Here's the lede of the 2009 New Yorker profile by Lauren Collins:
A few summers ago, on upper Fifth Avenue, Bill Cunningham spied a remarkable creature: a woman, in her seventies, with a corona of blue hair—not the muzzy pastel hue associated with bad dye jobs but the irradiant one of Slurpees and laundry detergent. The woman gave Cunningham an idea. Every day for a month, whenever he saw something cerulean (a batik shawl) or aqua (a Hawaiian-print sarong) or azure (a Japanese parasol) coming down the sidewalk, he snapped a picture of it. One morning, he spotted a worker balancing, on his shoulder, a stuffed blue marlin. “I thought, That’s it, kid!” he recently recalled. The following Sunday, “On the Street,” the street-fashion column that Cunningham has maintained in the Times for more than a decade, was populated entirely with New Yorkers dressed in various shades of the color—a parade of human paint chips. “Mediterranean shades of blue are not yet the new pink, but they are a favorite this summer,” he wrote. “The cooling watery tones, worn as an accent with white and browns, appear in turquoise-color jewelry and blue hair, but it is rare to see a man crossing the Avenue of the Americas with a trophy sailfish.”
Cunningham’s job is not so different from a fisherman’s: it requires a keen knowledge, honed over years, of the local ecosystem and infinite patience in all manner of weather conditions.
Vogue today commented on Cunningham's death in a piece by Hamish Bowles that refers to him as a national treasure. It begins:
It was the whimsical, fantastical world of hats and headdresses that first brought William J. Cunningham into the world of fashion that would revere him for decades to come. As a boy “I could never concentrate on Sunday church services,” he explained, “because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.”
Having dropped out of Harvard, Bill, as he was known to all, established a millinery salon in mid-century Manhattan. He named it William J., so as not to embarrass his conservative Bostonian family with the use of his surname.
“His hats were the grand opera of all time,” remembered the illustrator Joe Eula, citing a broad-brim, ostrich feather–crested beach hat with fringe from brim to floor, behind which the wearer was supposed to be able to change at the beach.
His clients included Mrs. Astor and Marilyn Monroe and he would create some of the headdresses for Truman Capote’s famed 1966 Black and White Ball (ostensibly given for the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham)—the café society event of the decade.
His scrupulous editorial standards of both content and comportment were old world. He would only document social events that were fundraisers for charitable and philanthropic causes, and every evening he bicycled valiantly from venue to venue to do so, clad in his trademark French workman’s smock. When I cohosted an event for the New York City Opera in a magnificent Stanford White building on the Columbia campus one year, Bill politely explained that it would be too far for him to cycle, and so regrettably he would not be able to cover the evening for The Times. Try as one might there was absolutely no question that his unimpeachable editorial integrity could be sullied by accepting our offer of a car to collect him. (“If you don’t take money,” he once explained, “they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”)
Judy Graeme admitted for LA Observed in 2011 that she cannot enjoy the weekend without checking out checking out Cunningham's latest street fashion report. She wrote:
If I miss his latest pictures for some reason, I feel like something's off, like I've misplaced some piece of vital information that is my fashion touchstone for the week.
I'm especially addicted to his "On the Street" audio slideshows. When I press play and the cool, man-about-town theme music reaches my ears, I'm transported to the streets of New York. His distinctive voice makes me happy. Former Los Angeles Times photographer Iris Schneider, who met Cunningham when she was freelancing in NYC, says you can almost hear the twinkle in his eye. "I'd say he sounds like an upper-crust leprechaun," she says. "There is an upper-crust polish straight out of Sutton Place, but he's got an infectious lilt that is totally his own."
Also today from Vanity Fair:
He worked as a kind of fashion anthropologist, who was as passionate about chronicling trends as he was about recognizing spectacular individuality. “We all get dressed for Bill,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour, a regular fixture in Cunningham’s columns, remarked in ]the 2010] film.