Bill Cun­ning­ham

Bi­cy­cling pho­tog­ra­pher who snapped the colour­ful and ec­cen­tric street fash­ion­istas of New York

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries - Bill Cun­ning­ham, born March 13 1929, died June 25 2016

BILL CUN­NING­HAM, who has died aged 87, was a pho­tog­ra­pher of street fash­ion for The New York Times; held in great af­fec­tion for his good hu­mour, sim­plic­ity of life and unerring aes­thetic judg­ment, for 40 years he ped­alled around mid-town Man­hat­tan on his bi­cy­cle tak­ing pho­to­graphs of peo­ple and what they were wear­ing.

“The best fash­ion show is def­i­nitely on the street,” he said. “Al­ways has been. Al­ways will be.” He had a keen eye for a new trend and his pho­to­graphs ap­peared in Women’s

Wear Daily (which he left when sneer­ing cap­tions were added to some of his pic­tures), De­tails, and Vogue. But it was in The New York Times that he made the most im­pact. His weekly “On the Street” pic­ture spreads recorded the chang­ing styles of what he called the “birds of par­adise” – New York­ers in all their colour­ful ec­cen­tric­ity, from punks to “ladies who lunch”.

Each page would fo­cus on a dif­fer­ent de­tail – “legs and shoes”, “bare shoul­ders”, “the denim dress” – in a tech­nique which was later taken up by fash­ion blog­gers on the in­ter­net. Cun­ning­ham would su­per­vise the lay­out of the art­work him­self, though as a pho­tog­ra­pher he had few artis­tic pre­ten­sions, in­sist­ing: “I’m just doc­u­ment­ing what I see.”

Even­tu­ally he took his columns online, record­ing a com­men­tary over his still pic­tures, but he never adopted dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, con­tin­u­ing to use a bat­tered Nikon and send­ing his film for de­vel­op­ing to a one-hour photo shop.

Cun­ning­ham had no in­ter­est in celebri­ties (“with their free dresses”), ex­cept as sub­jects for pho­to­graphs – or in money, pos­ses­sions or ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships. For many years, un­til he was evicted, he rented an artist’s stu­dio on an up­per floor of Carnegie Hall, where he slept on a bed of foam on a wooden board sup­ported by milk crates in a room crammed with metal fil­ing cab­i­nets. There was no kitchen and the bath­room was down the hall. He never owned a tele­vi­sion but went to Mass ev­ery Sun­day.

Cun­ning­ham’s own uni­form was un­chang­ing – a blue cot­ton French worker’s jacket with large pock­ets, khaki trousers, a flat cap and a smart shirt. For when it rained he had a foldup plas­tic pon­cho, its holes patched with gaffer tape. His lat­est Sch­winn bi­cy­cle was his 29th, he said: all the oth­ers had been stolen.

For Cun­ning­ham, fash­ion was “the ar­mour to sur­vive the re­al­ity of ev­ery­day life” – an essen­tial part of civil­i­sa­tion, and not at all friv­o­lous.

The sec­ond of four chil­dren, William John Cun­ning­ham was born into a Bos­ton Ir­ish Catholic fam­ily on March 13 1929.

As a teenager he got a job as a stock­boy at the Man­hat­tan depart­ment store Bon­wit Teller. Af­ter a term at Har­vard he re­turned to Bon­wit’s, this time in the ad­ver­tis­ing depart­ment. By the early 1950s he was de­sign­ing and mak­ing ex­otic hats in his spare time, sell­ing them under the dis­creet brand name William J, to save his fam­ily em­bar­rass­ment.

Af­ter ser­vice in the US Army dur­ing the Korean War he set up his milliner’s busi­ness in a shop in cen­tral Man­hat­tan, and later at Southamp­ton on Long Is­land. By the early 1960s he had be­gun writ­ing about fash­ion for

Women’s Wear Daily. But his epiphany came in the late 1960s when an ac­quain­tance sold him an Olym­pus Pen D cam­era and ad­vised: “Use it like a note­book.”

“That was the real be­gin­ning,” Cun­ning­ham re­called. One day he saw some flower chil­dren protest­ing against the Viet­nam War and re­alised that the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of the street – the an­tithe­sis of “cookie-cut­ter same­ness” – was what ex­cited him.

By the late 1970s he was tak­ing reg­u­lar as­sign­ments for The New York

Times, though he only re­luc­tantly joined the staff in the 1990s. One of his early pic­tures was of Greta Garbo in a fur coat. Once es­tab­lished he had two columns: as well as “On the Street”, “Evening Hours” chron­i­cled the phil­an­thropic party scene. But al­though he brushed shoul­ders with the haut monde, he would not al­low him­self to be cor­rupted, re­fus­ing to ac­cept free food or drink at the so­ci­ety galas he covered: “You see, if you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing.”

In 2011 Cun­ning­ham was the sub­ject of an ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary, Bill

Cun­ning­ham New York, with en­thu­si­as­tic con­tri­bu­tions from lu­mi­nar­ies of New York so­ci­ety such as Tom Wolfe, Brooke As­tor, Michael Kors, Iris Apfel and Anna Win­tour.

In 2008 he was made an Of­fi­cer in the Or­der of Arts and Let­ters by the French Min­istry of Cul­ture. Ac­cept­ing the hon­our, he said: “He who seeks beauty, finds it.”

He never mar­ried.

Cun­ning­ham with Ri­hanna and Stella McCart­ney at a gala ben­e­fit in 2014, and (right) a poster for the 2011 doc­u­men­tary about his life and work

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