New York Times fashion and street style photographer Bill Cunningham, who died last June, was an institution, as the many memorials and tributes to him can attest. The Times itself has republished many of Cunningham’s images, which were shot while he stood on street corners or rode around the city on his bicycle.
But there are thousands of images that never made it into the paper and, according to his longtime collaborator John Kurdewan, there is an ongoing effort underway to make those previously unseen outtakes available.
This story first appeared in the February 23, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“His family is really helpful and they are working with The New York Times to resolve any [copyright] issues that might come up,” Kurdewan said Tuesday during a discussion on street style hosted by The Times and Samsung 837. “I think we are going to have some good pages coming out soon.
“I mean, there’s a lot of work,” he added, as if to temper expectations.
“He did shoot like 2,000 photos a week,” Style’s web editor and the panel’s moderator Joanna Nikas, who also worked closely with Cunningham, chimed in.
“There are thousands of photos that only Bill, me and Joanna had ever seen on the digital end. And then there are the physical archives,” Kurdewan continued. “He had filing cabinets on top of filing cabinets. But I think it’s all going to work out in the end.”
The event was held to promote a partnership between The Times and Samsung on daily virtual reality videos (called the Daily 360) that began last November. Nikas and Kurdewan were joined on stage, beneath projections of Cunningham’s colorful columns, by Allure digital director Simone Oliver; executive producer of 360 News at The New York Times Marcelle Hopkins; photographer Andre Wagner, and frequent street style subjects and twin sisters TK Wonder, a musician and writer, and Cipriana Quann, the editor in chief of the style blog Urban Bush Babes.
Street style — which Wagner defined as “just going out into the world and into the streets and finding people that actually have style, that wear their style, that have an attitude, that just kind of have their own energy” — became increasingly popular in the early Aughts due to the rise of blogs and social media.
But, as the panelists repeatedly pointed out, the genre owes a lot to Cunningham, who began shooting his weekly fashion spreads for the Times in the Seventies after a stint as a photographer at WWD under editorial director John B. Fairchild, shooting, among other things, its column called They Are Wearing.
“I call Bill the grandfather of street style, the blogs were his descendants,” Oliver said.
“I think street style resonated with a lot of people because of its accessibility. Sometimes, people think that to be stylish, you have to spend a certain amount of money. But style is not dependent on how much money your shoes cost. You don’t need a certain amount in your bank account to be stylish,” Quann said. “I think that’s the great message behind street style.”
But especially notable during this past fashion week, the panelists agreed, were more overtly political messages.
Wonder talked about how many designers this fashion week were inspiring by inserting political messages and support for equality and diversity into their shows. Mara Hoffman, for example, gave a “kick-ass” presentation promoting equality.
“I’m gonna tell mama you cursed on a panel,” her sister jokingly threatened.
Quann cited the more political stance of major fashion magazines such as Vogue. “People in the streets actually inspired these major publications, because years ago, you would not actually see Vogue magazine posting these things,” she said.
“Feminism was happening on Instagram long before we saw it on the runways,” Oliver noted. “Before, you would see the runways influencing the street and personal style. Now it’s much more of a two-way street. I think street style and social are going to continue to push the fashion industry and all the leading creatives. It’s more of a circular thing now.”
But diversity in street style is not exactly new. Just ask Cunningham’s longtime colleague.
“Bill did cover everything from politics to fashion and diversity. He was really the forbearer of it,” Kurdewan said. “With his street page, he put in people that The New York Times at one point didn’t want in the paper.”
The conversation veered towards remembrances of Cunningham, and almost all of the questions during the Q&A period were about the legendary photographer.
Did Bill take more pictures when he switched from film to digital, someone asked?
“When Bill went digital, he went nuts when I told him that little card can hold over 2,000 images. He did put that to a test. He overshot. So we had to get him a 16-gig card,” Kurdewan replied.
Was it hard for Bill to take photos without being noticed when he was so well-known?
“What really upset him was when people would come up to him when he was working and try to have a conversation with him,” Kurdewan said. “A lot of people didn’t know that he was really hard of hearing. You talked to the wrong ear, he didn’t hear anything. That’s why everyone at work always thought I was yelling at him.”
One enterprising attendee inquired whether the Times was hiring someone to replace Cunningham.
“There are no plans to replace Bill in that way,” Nikas said.
“Is that like a budget thing?” the attendee persisted, to nervous laughter from the audience.
“I really can’t answer that question,” Nikas replied.