“It’s not work, it’s pleasure,” Bill Cunningham said a few years ago. “That’s why I feel so guilty. Everybody else does work — I have too much fun.”
That was typical of the man, one of the greatest and most distinctive fashion journalists of the past 50 years.
Cunningham, the longtime New York Times photographer, died over the weekend at the age of 87.
Cunningham had suffered a stroke in his apartment on Central Park South about two weeks ago, and was hospitalized.
Beloved in fashion circles, Cunningham, who is best known for his candid and street-style photography, was a fixture at fashion shows and on the streets of New York where he was often seen riding his bicycle to events. On early mornings, Cunningham, who habitually sported a blue button-down smock, would be spotted snapping photos of fashion-forward passersby on Fifth Avenue near Bergdorf Goodman.
His passing was immediately felt in the fashion community. Before his men’s show began in Paris Sunday night, Thom Browne spoke on the PA system and said: “Good evening everyone. Before we start, I thought it would be appropriate to observe a moment of silence for the incomparable Bill Cunningham.”
Backstage after the show, Browne told WWD: “He was the original…I think he meant so much to people who didn’t even realize. It’s not just that he was around for so long, he was just the pure version of what is going on today in reverse to people just taking pictures on the streets and bloggers and all of that. He just cared about being behind the camera, not becoming the celebrity himself, which made him even more of a celebrity.”
Although Cunningham’s status had grown in nonfashion circles, following the release of the 2011 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” the photographer generally eschewed the spotlight, preferring to be “invisible,” as he told WWD in 2008 during a retrospective of his work.
That year, Cunningham had been honored with France’s L’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres in Paris where he teared up and spoke about his career and love of fashion, offering: “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”
Rick Owens was among designers including Sonia Rykiel and Gareth Pugh who attended Cunningham’s Legion of Honor ceremony. “I remember tearing up when he spoke about his primary purpose being the pursuit of beauty in a trembling cracking voice,” he recalled. “And then when Jean-Luce Huré, his French equivalent, embraced him with them both in tears.…Well, I am tearing up right now, just thinking about it.”
“He was very popular, just as much in Paris as in New York. He was very modest. He didn’t always have the best seat [at fashion shows], but was always in a great mood. He loved fashion in an incredible way until the end. He jumped for joy after a show he liked,” said Didier Grumbach, then president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, who awarded Cunningham the French legion of honor.
It’s Grumbach who asked the French culture ministry to make Cunningham a knight of the Legion of Honor. “He did a lot for Paris. He attended the first Christian Dior show in 1947; he saw the beginning of Yves Saint Laurent, the beginning of ready-to-wear. He was a witness like almost no other.”
In an industry characterized by extravagance, status and largess of oversize egos, Cunningham, who chronicled the fashion industry for The Times since the late Seventies, was something of an anomaly for his singular, almost monastic focus on the clothing, not the personalities.
Karl Lagerfeld remarked on that and Cunningham, the man. “Poor Bill. He was such a mysterious person,” he said. “I met him with Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos around 1970; I had always the feeling they were his closest friends. Everybody liked him but he was not into social life and had no other close friends. No dinners, nothing. He appeared and disappeared after he had done his job. Not many people knew where and how he lived; he was an extremely discreet person. His presence will be missed. What will happen to his incredible archive?”
Readers of The Times experienced that passion in Cunningham’s columns “Evening Hours” and “On the Street,” which included the photographer’s audio commentary.
Born on March 13, 1929 in Boston, Cunningham came to New York after dropping out of Harvard University at the age of 19. He got his start at Bonwit’s in the advertising department, but soon began designing hats under his label “William J.” His business, which was located on 52nd between Madison and Park, folded when he was drafted during the Korean War, and served a tour in the U.S. Army.
Cunningham, who was the first journalist in America to write about Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Paul Gaultier, began his journalism career working for WWD under John B. Fairchild, who had just returned from Paris to New York, and later The Chicago Tribune before joining The Times.
His first big break came when he took a chance photo of Greta Garbo, who wore a plain nutria coat that had a silhouette that caught his eye. Cunningham confessed he didn’t notice who he was photographing, but his editors at The Times did. He showed his editor Arthur Gelb a trove of similar photos he had snapped, which Cunningham said in a 2002 piece for The Times called “Bill on Bill” included “Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, the king and queen of Spain and a Kennedy in a fox coat.”
Cornelia Guest, daughter of C.Z. Guest, recalled her first encounter with Cunningham. “I was a little girl and I met him for the first time with my mother,” she told WWD. “We were coming out of FAO Schwartz and he took our picture. I have known him all my life. He was always ‘Mr. Cunningham’ and he always called me ‘child.’ He was a true gentleman and he made the world a better place.”
In a 2002 article, “The Picture Subjects Talk Back,” by Cathy Horyn, Gelb called the photographs a “turning point” for Cunningham.
“It gave him recognition beyond fashion,” Gelb said. “And his street photography was a breakthrough for The Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission. The Times had always been prissy about that.”
In 1978, Cunningham published “Facades,” a collection of 128 photographs of Editta Sherman in front of well-known Manhattan buildings. Years later, in 2008, he received the L’Ordre National des Arts et des Letters and in 2012 he received the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence.
“He had such an eye,” said Carine Roitfeld. “He paved the way for other photographers. We all dreamt to be featured on his page in The New York Times. It was the page to be on.” Roitfeld recalled the photos Cunningham took of her wearing an Azzedine Alaïa coat in the snow during New York Fashion Week. “They were magnificent,” she said. “He called me ‘my child.’ ‘How are you, my child?’ When you’re a grandmother, it’s nice to be called ‘my child.’ He was maybe the only person in the fashion world that everyone — without exception — liked. He’ll be greatly missed.”
Street style photographers outside the Lanvin men’s show in Paris on Sunday morning in Paris expressed their sadness about Cunningham’s death.
Adam Katz Sinding, whose Le 21ème blog counts 446,000 Instagram followers, said: “I got to spend a day in New York with him at the Cloisters. I was on a train with my ex-girlfriend and he was there. We walked with him the whole day, and he was telling us about the Rockefeller parties that he used to shoot there. Everything that I said to him, I had to repeat two or three times because he couldn’t hear. But it was very cool [to get to spend the day with him]…I knew who he was at the time I started this [street style photography]. He created the whole thing. There’s no question.”
“He was wonderful, always smiling, curious about everything, passionate and so humble!” said Sarah Andelman, creative director and purchasing manager of Colette, who also praised his “unique eye and incredible sense of observation.”
“I asked him to do an exhibition. He would always politely answer yes, but clearly he didn’t want to be in the spotlight,” she continued. She said she always thought that he should do a book of his photography. “When the documentary [‘Bill Cunningham New York’] came out, I saw that everything was organized and archived […] I hope that there will be a book and that the next generations will know his extraordinary work,” said Andelman.
“There’s no one else like Bill,” said Tommy Ton, the Canadian photographer behind the Jak & Jil blog. “In January, it was pouring rain. The fact that he was willing to stand in the rain while all of us were taking refuge, I thought it was remarkable. Nothing would ever stop Bill. So when I started seeing less of Bill, I was concerned. When the news came, it was very shattering.
“I don’t even know if this new generation of photographers even knows the imprint of Bill’s work,” Ton continued. “He loved clothes, that’s what mattered. It wasn’t about if someone was a celebrity or what they were wearing. He was interested in telling a story with his pictures. He saw things that no one else could see.”
“He was a cultural anthropologist: The fact that he was willing to stand in the cold or ride his bike, the numerous times I heard he was injured – he once was hit by a truck, or car rolled over his face,” said Ton. “What was his famous quote? ‘Money is cheap, freedom is the most expensive luxury.'”
The French fashion and society photographer Jean-Luc Huré called Cunningham an “extraordinary” man, “a little ascetic.” “He paid for his flights and photo labs to keep his freedom,” said longtime friend, Huré. “He had an ethic that we shared. He was making no compromises. He was discreet and shy.”
Huré recalled having lunch with Cunningham, and fans would come to take photos with him. “His face would become very red, and he was very embarrassed. He would tell them that I was the real photographer and therefore that I was the one to shoot,” said Huré. “When he lived in his pocket-sized apartment in Carnegie Hall, he slept on a cot with boxes of negatives underneath and everywhere – in the bath, in the fridge.”
“He didn’t come to Paris during the last two seasons, because of his eyes. His surgeon told him — rightly – not to fly. But I was hoping to see him in October,” he said.
A desk attendant in Cunningham’s new building — where he moved after Carnegie Hall — remembered Cunningham fondly.
“I used to put eye drops in his eyes, right here in the lobby!” he said. “Bill didn’t care.”
Others chimed in that they were surprised when people would visit the building to ask if Bill Cunningham lived there.
“Him?” joked one attendant, who remembered a time when Renée Zellweger inhabited the building years earlier. “Renée, I would understand.”
But building staff began reading about Cunningham and some even watched the documentary.
Soon, like others in the building, they realized Cunningham was special. They talked about how he’d always wheel his large bike in the lobby, and sometimes sport a tuxedo for late-night occasions; how he could “get into any fancy party,” and how he’d “just chain up” his bike out front before walking in. Above all, they spoke about what a sweet person Cunningham was and how two of his close friends, who moved from the Carnegie apartments to the new building, had recently passed away, which was a tough blow for him.
“He was so humble,” said the doorman, who found Cunningham in his apartment unresponsive on a Monday. It was believed that Cunningham suffered a stroke on a Saturday night, and concerned neighbors alerted the building when the photographer’s door was left ajar over the weekend.
At The New York Times, where Cunningham spent his days, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered: “Bill was an extraordinary person with an incredible talent not just for fashion photography but for life. His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met. We have lost a legend and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
Executive editor Dean Baquet praised Cunningham’s work ethic and approach to his job, adding: “He was a hugely ethical journalist. And he was incredibly open-minded about fashion. To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”
Director of photography Michele McNally, who worked closely with Cunningham, said: “Bill was an extraordinary man, his commitment and passion unparalleled, his gentleness and humility inspirational. Even though his talents were very well-known, he preferred to be anonymous, something unachievable for such a superstar. I will miss him every day.”
Despite all the accolades and the minor-celebrity status that he has garnered, Cunningham never let any of it get to his head – just the opposite.
“I’m a zero. I’m a worker in the factory,” he told WWD in 2014, following his conversation with Fern Mallis. “I’m like you and everybody else. I’m still enjoying what I do.”
According to a spokeswoman from The Times, Cunningham’s funeral will be private and by invitation only. Cunningham’s family specifically requested no flowers. Condolences may be sent to his family via the following address: The New York Times c/o Anne Reid, 4th floor, Photo Desk, 620 Eighth Avenue, NY, NY 10018.