The New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham died on 25 June 2016 at the age of 87. He was a fashion photographer who took to the streets to capture what real people were wearing.
Before photography he designed hats. Born in Boston, Bill Cunningham (1929-2016) made his way to New York in 1948 when he was 19 years of age. He was drafted into the army but returned to New York in 1953 to continue his work as a milliner. His clients included Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Cunningham also wrote freelance articles for women’s magazines and newspapers, which he continued when he closed his hat shop in 1962.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s black mourning suit, worn at President Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, had Cunningham’s touch. She asked him to dye the red Balenciaga suit, bought at Chez Ninon where Cunningham worked.
He began taking photographs of fashionable people on the streets of New York out of interest, for he was never trained in photography. He picked up his first camera around 1967 and took photos of the Summer Of Love on the streets. When he photographed film star Greta Garbo in 1978 his work made headlines. He didn’t see Garbo – he saw the coat she wore! The New York Times hired him in 1978 as a freelance photographer.
He declined permanent jobs, gifts and money, saying ‘if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.’ He said he was really taking photographs for himself, not to sell or make money.
He only became a full-time employee with The New York Times in 1994 after being hit by a truck and not having health insurance. He remained with them until his death of a stroke in 2016.
His street fashion photos became a regular spot in The New York Times, called On the Street. Later he had another column called Evening Hours from 1989. He was a pioneer in this type of street photography, following people in the name of fashion. He would take shots of shoes, stockings, coats, hand bags, purses – whatever women were wearing – and men too. He had an eye for fashion, no matter who was wearing it. He would only take a photograph of a celebrity if he was interested in what the person was wearing. He was never interested in people, only fashion.
He was not interested in just any fashion. He preferred to photograph clothing that was not ‘modeled’ but was worn naturally – what people wore to work, or to meet their friends. He also had an eye for trends. A soon as he noticed people wearing a similar item he would take a photo. More than three shots in a day of the same item was a trend!
From 1968-1976 he collected up to 500 pieces of vintage clothes. He photographed Editta Sherman in them, and in 1978 published Facades, a collection of 128 of these photographs, which were also exhibited.
Cunningham’s favourite spot for taking photographs on the street was the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. This is now called Bill Cunningham Corner.
To get around New York he would ride a bicycle. He had many bicycles, replacing them each time one was stolen. His main work wear was black sneakers, bright blue jacket, and a camera around his neck.
In 2010 film-maker Richard Press and The New York Times writer Philip Gefter produced a documentary about him, called Bill Cunningham New York, which was released in 2011. The documentary showed his small apartment and daily routine. He had breakfast every day at Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, mostly a sausage and egg sandwich and a cup of coffee.
He did not own a television, did not go to the cinema, and lived in the same studio apartment with a single bed and rows of filing cabinets for 40 years until 2010. He was then relocated to another nearby apartment. But he never stopped taking photographs – every day he was on the streets doing what he loved.
French fashion blogger Garance Dore, who lives in New York, wrote of Bill Cunningham, ‘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. He was always going, going, going, rain, snow, heat, always smiling.’
Photographs: Bill Cunningham by WireImage (top); with his bicycle by bcgalleryspace.wordpress.com; Live Like Bill poster by Lucy Vigrass