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