Bill Cunningham, ‘New York Times’ Icon and One of the World’s Most Well Known Photographers Dies at Age 87.
Bill Cunningham, fashion’s resident street style photographer, died Saturday according to reports from the New York Times and Associated Press. Cunningham leaves behind a legacy filled with decades of trailblazing. He was 87.
Ask anyone in fashion who the most iconic street style photographer is and you’ll likely hear the same answer: Bill Cunningham. The life of Cunningham has been extraordinary. For decades the New York Times photographer silently documented the splendor of shifting style trends on the street and in venues around the world. Dressed in his uniform blue trench coat and trousers, Cunningham meticulously curated style moments that influenced both how the world sees fashion and those who create it. The genius of Cunningham elevated street style photography and street style fashion into disciplines of their own.
Quietly and hesitantly, Bill Cunningham became one of the most well known photographers in the world. So much so, that the appearance of starched blue fabric (Cunningham’s signature blueÂ coat) became the most prominent indicator of style.If Bill noticed you enough to turn his lens in your direction, you knew you were on to something. With a single click of his camera, Cunningham exposed his audience to fashion’s latest trends in his ‘On the Street’ feature in the New York Times.
Few know much about the man behind the camera. Cunningham led a private life free of the usual celebrity ventures that come along with such recognition. In 2010 the veil was opened as a documentary emerged, “Bill Cunningham New York”. For the first time, we were offered an intimate view into the photographer’sÂ personal life. What we discovered intrigued us. The prolific photographer appeared to have devoted his entire existence to his craft. His personal life, well his subjects were his life and slowly they became ours as well.
One of Bill’s greatest admirers was the high priestess of fashion herself, Anna Wintour. “I’ve said many times, we all get dressed for Bill,” she shared in the photographer’s documentary. The photographer was also widely recognized for his anthropological approach to photography. In 2008, France honored him with the Legion Honneur followed in 2009 with the New York Landmarks Conservancy naming him a Living Landmark.
Bill Cunningham was a complex enigma. Immersed in a world of the elite filled with glamour and extravagances, he opted for a more cerebral approach. He wanted to capture people as they were not as they wanted to appear. During a 2002 interview with The New York Times, Cunningham revealed that his discreet approach was a pivotal component of his photography because “you get more natural pictures that way.” In his efforts, he turned the lens not only on the world of fashion, but the world in its entirety. The New York times summed it up best in Cunningham’s obituary.
He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had until very recently for under $3. He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), said: Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.
As designers continue to send collections down the runways of Fashion Week and Editors and city dwellers step outside to brave the elements, there will be one figure missing. Those who’ve grown to know Bill will notice it the most. Eagerly, we’ll wait for the flash of blue, quietly making its way through the chaos around us and it won’t be there. If we look hard enough, however, we’ll notice that it’s everywhere. Bill Cunningham is New York, it’s fashion, it’s the beauty of a life devoted singularly to a craft – the subject. It’s us.