Bill Cunningham: 1929 - 2016

RIP Bill Cunningham, Master Photographer and Godfather of Street Style

The Daily Beast

June 26, 2016

Written with Lloyd Grove

On Valentine’s Day, at her Meatpacking District HQ, Diane von Furstenberg held her New York Fashion Week show.

The beautiful people circulated with glasses of champagne, DVF had her own mini supermodel disco party upstairs, with Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Jourdan Dunn, Lily Aldridge, and Irina Shayk.

At the bottom of the DVF HQ staircase stood the New York Times‘s Bill Cunningham, clad in a padded blue winter coat and his usual chinos, clutching his 35mm camera.

He was taking pictures of the famous and the extremely pretty, nimbly side-stepping around the crush to get the best shot, a beaming smile alternating with a look of beady concentration.

Forget all the fluttering supermodels and fashion-folk: Cunningham, a star not just of the fashion world but also New York, was the center of attention that evening, and was surrounded by people offering their greetings and hugs. It looked as if he would rather just get on with the job.

He was being photographed, and lionized and leapt upon as much as the people he was photographing.

On Saturday, it was announced that the much-loved Cunningham had died, aged 87, after suffering a stroke. An eloquent and richly detailed obituary in the New York Times by Jacob Bernstein summarized Cunningham’s many achievements, not least–in 2009–being made a living landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

It was quite something to observe Cunningham at work, at parties, or at fashion shows, or on the street.

In my pictures of Cunningham that night at DVF’s show, for example, Cunningham knows people are watching him, but his expression–and his own resistance to posing–shows he would much rather get on with the job that made his name: documenting fashion and the fashionable, or what he deemed those things to be.

Cunningham would scoot about town on a bicycle, do anything to get the perfect shot, and often stationed himself at 5th Avenue and 57th Street to photograph those who would later appear in his ‘On The Street’ column in the Styles section of the Times. (The galas and swanky events of the evening came under the heading ‘Evening Hours.’)

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, told the Daily Beast that Cunningham had had a stroke “maybe 10 days ago. He was working fine until then.”
Bernstein told the Daily Beast that Cunningham’s formidable work ethic continued up to when he had the stroke: “In the last six months he was still attending three, four events a night. He would come into the office and greet us all with ‘Hello kids.’ There was a group of people who doted on him. He worked all the way to the end.”
Stuart Emmrich, the editor of the New York Times’ Styles section, told the Daily Beast: “Bill was a towering figure in the fashion world, but one with remarkable humility and generosity of sprit.
“Once, when Chanel inexplicably gave me a better seat than him, he shyly asked me if I would change places so he would be able to better photograph the runway.
“I said, ‘Of course,’ and after we swapped places, he looked up at me, grinned and took my picture. It was the highlight of my time as Styles editor.”

Cunningham was a true ascetic, the simplicity and frugality of his life in direct contrast to the glamour and super-rich he photographed.

As Bernstein wrote in his marvelous obituary: “He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had, until very recently, for under $3.

“He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

Bernstein told the Daily Beast, “Bill had no financial motivation, he was only interested in working.”

Cunningham was freelance, Bernstein writes in his obituary, until a 1994 accident when Cunningham was hit by a truck while riding his bike–and he joined the staff of the Times, saying it was “a matter of health insurance.”

Born and raised in Boston, as a young man Cunningham dropped out of Harvard. He made women’s hats, resisting his parents’ efforts for him to get involved in advertising.

He also worked for an upscale couture salon called Chez Ninon. It was Cunningham who dyed black the red Balenciaga suit Jackie Kennedy wore for her husband JFK’s funeral.

In journalism, Cunningham worked briefly for John Fairchild at Women’s Wear Daily, before they fell out over who was better–Yves St. Laurent or André Courrèges. (Cunningham thought the latter, and quit after Fairchild killed a piece he’d written about Courrèges.)

“He really had an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion,” Bernstein said. “He was a sweet guy, but there was no fooling him when it came to style.”

When Cunningham was working at The Chicago Tribune’s New York office, photographer David Montgomery gave him a camera. Montgomery’s advice was: “Use it like a notebook.”

By the early 1970s, Cunningham had begun taking his now-legendary street-style photos for the New York Times.

“He really is the Big Bang of street-style,” Bernstein said. “All of those people doing it today owe a big debt to him.” With the anonymous, sexy or striking people he captured on New York’s streets, there was “only a brief exchange” before he snapped them, says Bernstein. “He wanted them to respond to the camera without posing for it.”

It wasn’t the famous that interested Cunningham, but those with style–or a style that he found interesting, and they could be famous or not, and rich or not. The red carpet was too predictable a runway for Cunningham.

As Bernstein said to the Daily Beast, “He was a true advocate for diversity, and he had a very good eye. He photographed everyone, everywhere, white, black, rich, and not-rich.”

In 1968, Cunningham embarked on an eight-year project to capture the architecture of neglected neighborhoods “and pair them with the remarkable fashions that defined their societies,” as the Daily Beast’s Justin Jones put it.

“He paired costumes by prominent society figures, such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art—and Mrs. J.P. Morgan Jr., with their family’s extravagant architecture, capturing how the buildings of the era were influencing fashion,” wrote Jones.
The series, titled Bill Cunningham: Facades, went on display at the New York Historical Society, in 2014.

But it was in his love of seeing, and snapping, fashion in transit that Cunningham became best-known, and much-loved, for.

In the Daily Beast in 2010, Philip Gefter, producer of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, recounted how Cunningham’s speediness on his bicycle outpaced the dual energies of the documentary’s much younger directors’.

It was in that film that Anna Wintour said, “We all get dressed for Bill,” of the rich and famous that Cunningham photographed. Gefter quoted Cunningham as dismissing all the plaudits showered upon him. “I’m just a hack,” he told the crew, but Gefter thought that a cover so he could maintain his own independence.

Gefter recalls Cunningham looking dismissive at the paparazzi swearing around Catherine Deneuve after one event. She wasn’t of interest to him, he said, as she wasn’t wearing anything interesting.

“He wants nothing more than to be able to stand on the street and wait to be thrilled by what someone is wearing,” Gefter wrote. “Period. At the same time, he is deeply circumspect—he did drop out of Harvard—and he regards his two columns in the Times in the larger context of the paper’s news coverage.”

Gefter, a former picture editor at the Times, wrote that Cunningham was as scrupulously polite to a mailroom clerk at the paper as he was to a section editor. His biggest fights were with art editors, who thought they knew how best his photographs should be displayed on the page.

No one assigned Cunningham “to go out and find women on the street wearing pink scarves, say,” Gefter wrote. “The endless trends he spots—whether leopard patterned bags or backless summer dresses or white leather boots—come from what he, alone, observes.”

As for his personal life, in Bill Cunningham New York Cunningham did not answer the question of whether he was gay or not directly, but said he had never had a romantic relationship in his life.

Bernstein wondered if Cunningham’s pictures weren’t “acts of sublimation” of some kind–the romantic and personal subsumed by the pursuit of his photographic passions.
Whatever, he said Cunningham–who often appeared frustrated at people approaching him as a celebrity–may have also learnt something from favorite subjects like Wintour about how effective a tool mystery was if you are famous, especially in such over-exposing times.

Bernstein laughed as he recalled attending social events alongside Cunningham, where “you would definitely end up feeling like the jerk as he had been going to them for 10, 20, 30 years. He was immensely supportive of certain charities.”

In an affectionate and heartfelt 2013 essay in New York, Dan Shaw celebrated Cunningham’s “big gay heart,” in chronicling, celebrating, and advocating through his pictures gay life in far less publicly visible times, whether through his pictures of AIDS fundraisers or in articles, like one about Fire Island, written at a time when the word ‘gay’ didn’t feature in the New York Times.

Cunningham photographed downtown drag queens, long before drag had made its march into the mainstream, and the buff bare-chested dudes on Pride parades. Shaw writes that Cunningham, in this respect, was a doughty, quiet pioneer–who also, even more sweetly, made Shaw a Valentine’s card featuring cutout images of him and his then-boyfriend.

On Saturday, in a letter sent to journalists at the Times, executive editor Baquet wrote: “Dear Colleagues, As you know by now Bill Cunningham, an icon of the fashion world and a beloved member of our Times family, has died. He was a familiar sight across the city, and a warm and smiling presence in our newsroom.

“I suspect that if his negatives were laid out one by one they would tell a vivid visual story of the city, from its social elite to its street fashion. Bill was working until just days ago when he had a stroke. We will miss him dearly. While arrangements have not been made I’m sure there will be a time to celebrate his life and journalism in the coming days.”

In a further interview, Baquet told the Daily Beast of Cunningham: “He was one of a kind. He was this hugely ethical man who spent time with the most affluent and stylish people of New York and never let it get to him. He was completely humble, and if you looked at his pictures, they were not just pictures of an affluent New York. He sort of traveled around the city.

“There are people of all colors, shapes, income levels. I just think he loved people and he loved fashion and it showed in his pictures. He was just a remarkable figure. He was one of those names who not only made the fashion world, but as far as I’m concerned was one of the principal names of the New York Times.”

Baquet lives in Greenwich Village, “and I think I saw him (Cunningham) almost every weekend in the farmer’s market wandering around and taking pictures, and then I would see him on Madison Avenue taking pictures,” he told the Daily Beast.

“He was such a figure, tootling around on his bike, this funny, amazingly warm man. He was once at an event with me and my wife—which was rare for me to be at one of those events, and the next day on my desk was a picture that he took of us. Just a very sweet, decent human being.

“I think if somebody would have put together all of his pictures, all of his negatives over the years, it would be just a real historical visual portrait of New York.”

Or, as Gefter wrote in his 2010 Daily Beast piece: “His (Cunningham’s) daunting accomplishment is that he transformed an obsession with clothes into an exacting chronicle of the intersection of fashion and society in New York over half a century.”