Bill Cunningham obituary

American photographer fascinated by the street culture and fashion of New York

Bill Cunningham photographed real people wearing real clothes on the streets of New York for 50 years. It was his obsession, addiction, way of life, and though he disparaged it as a deeply minor thing his art form; one that he practised daily until he suffered the stroke that led to his death, at the age of 87.

He found that true metier in London in 1966, where he was tentatively writing fashion copy for the Chicago Tribune, and met the photographer David Montgomery, who gave him a cheap Olympus Pen-D half-frame camera to use as a notebook. In Cunninghams hands, it became far more than that. The street speaks to me, he said; it was the missing ingredient in fashion journalism, his street very often being Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, where he began recording the personal style of passers-by, making visual connections between designers and wearers, environment and tribes, fashion and history.

He photographed a friend in antique outfits against ancient NY buildings (the results were published as a book, Facades, in 1978), but he also bolted from a couture show to see the new phenomenon of anti-war protesters outside, and turned his lens from the NY Easter parade to hippies in the park. The images were sold to the Daily News, and then the New York Times.

He thought celebrity, cost, luxury and labels were all phooey. Cunningham only registered garments and how well they were worn, like the beautifully cut shoulder of a plain nutria-fur coat on a striking old lady one winter day in 1978: it took a while to dawn on him that she was Greta Garbo. His New York Times editor, Arthur Gelb, asked him if he had any more such images. He did. That earned him his first half-page, which evolved into the regular spread On the Street, with its themed collages composed of individual stunners, and the Evening Hours slot for charity-scene social events.

Rihanna, left, with Bill Cunningham, and Stella McCartney at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2014. Photograph: BFA/Rex/Shutterstock

Cunningham saw them as guerrilla assignments: get out there on his Schwinn bike, replaced more than 30 times over the years when stolen or smashed; get in there his extreme shyness did not impede his pushiness in pursuit of a shot; see things as they are, yet dont be seen. Its important to be almost invisible, he said, to catch people when theyre oblivious to the camera to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands.

He was never as technically accomplished as his hero Jacques Henri Lartigue, but they had the same gift: to arrest time, moment by moment. There was no lack of subjects high and low, young and old, of all races and all self-classifications (Cunningham was an early, delighted witness of public gay styles). New Yorkers are as determinedly, and democratically, stylish as the French, and display is their garment-trade citys purpose. We all dress for Bill, said Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue. For the first 25 years, Cunninghams work was a media peculiarity, a reminder that the New York Times was also a local paper. After that, everybody had a camera, and the internet on which to publish, but Cunningham was revered as the first master of street style.

That Olympus was not Cunninghams first camera. Born in Boston, the son of a government employee, William Cunningham, and his shy wife, as a boy he had a simple box camera to snap people in the streets, at parties and on vacation. His other hobby was confecting hats; his education was watching people outside Bonwit Teller, the department store where he shifted stock. After a miserable term at Harvard University, he set out in 1948 for New York, to work in the ad department of Bonwit Tellers flagship store. He still made hats.

Bill Cunningham receiving the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence in 2012, pictured with Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue.
Photograph: SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

In lieu of rent for a garret on 52nd Street, he cleaned the building; served behind a diner counter in exchange for food; bought millinery supplies for tips. Through Bonwits he met the owners of the chic boutique Chez Ninon and they directed high society customers up his narrow attic stairs. Since Cunningham had the visual wit crucial to millinery, he was a modest success until he was drafted into the army for the Korean war. On demob in 1953, he established another bolthole atelier, with more clients.

John Fairchild of Womens Wear Daily offered Cunningham a freelance column in the hope he would gossip about Chez Ninons classy customers. He never did, but his story ideas were original, even if he struggled with words (I write with pictures) and the gig lasted into the 1960s, when Cunningham submitted a rave review of Andr Courrges revolutionary Paris collection to Fairchild, who was an Yves Saint Laurent supporter. Cunningham walked out. Not back to hats their time had passed. He attempted fashion writing elsewhere, until Montgomery tempted him with that lens.

He was always perfect casting for a venerated master, given his monkish temperament and lifestyle. His invariable habit was a French street-sweepers cheap blue jacket. His cell until 2010 was a studio above Carnegie Hall, where he owned only his cabinets of files, slept in a narrow cot and used a communal bathroom. He ate at diners for a few dollars, declined dinner or drinks at the fancy dos he covered, paid his own work expenses. He maintained a monastic silence about his private life, if he had time for any.

He had no interest in wealth and stayed resolutely freelance until a truck hit his bike in 1994, after which he took a Times staff job for the health insurance. Offered his share from the sale of the magazine Details, which he had helped launch in 1982, he waved the big cheque away. Moneys the cheapest thing, he said. Liberty is the most expensive Once people own you, they can tell you what to do.

Fame was immaterial too: Legacy? Im a worker in the factory; all we care about is today. The film-maker Richard Press took eight years to persuade Cunningham to co-operate even guardedly in the making of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York (2010). He warily accepted fashion industry awards and membership of the French Lgion dhonneur, and quite liked being designated a living landmark of NYC by its Landmarks Conservancy in 2009. Not as much as he liked his daily round and uncommon tasks, though. He broke a kneecap in a bike crash last year, but that did not stop him. Only the stroke did that.

William John Cunningham, photographer, born 13 March 1929; died 25 June 2016

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