Photo Credit: Bill Cunningham
In the era of street style bloggers, Bill Cunningham stood out as the ultimate original. Bill Cunningham, said to have turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York City, chronicling an era’s ever-changing social scene for The New York Times — died age 87 in New York City on June 25, 2016, after being hospitalized for a stroke.
Mr. Cunningham was such a singular presence in the city that, in 2009, he was designated a living landmark. And he was an easy one to spot, riding his bicycle through Midtown, with his signature blue jacket, big smile and camera around his neck, ready for the next fashion statement.
In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham captured the changing dress habits to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic. In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.
In 2010, a documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews. Yet Mr. Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle. He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed.
As Anna Wintour put it in the documentary about Mr. Cunningham, “I’ve said many times, ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’”
On occasion, Mr. Cunningham allowed people to celebrate him in one way or another. For example, in 1993, he was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and biked onto the stage to accept his award. Although that was out of character.
Mr. Cunningham himself once said: “When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn — sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. 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.”
Mr. Cunningham put it this way in an essay he wrote for The Times in 2002:
“Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.”
Bill Cunningham was known for many things but will be remembered by this; his love of fashion, need for simplicity (having ate breakfast nearly every day at the the same deli on West 55th Street), his preference for anonymity, and distaste for celebrity.