Beloved and legendary fashion street photographer Bill Cunningham sadly died yesterday, Saturday 25th, June 2016 in Manhattan at the age of 87. Cunningham had recently suffered a stroke that resulted in him being hospitalized.
Cunningham was born in 1929. He received a scholarship to go to Harvard, however didn't stay long, instead moved to New York and began working in media.
Over the years Cunningham famously, through his photography recorded the evolving fashion and culture of New York by photographing people on the street, capturing the extravagant, chic, and everything in-between for The New York Times, who he worked for almost forty years. Prior to that he had his work featured in The Daily News and The Chicago Tribune. Cunningham's success was largely due to his ability to be so open minded about fashion and loved capturing the eccentric fashions on the street.
Cunningham had made such an impact on New York, with both his incredible work and gentle personality that seven years ago, in 2009 he was even given his own living landmark for 'Outstanding Contribution' awarded by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Cunningham become legendary after riding around Midtown photographing those on the street. He famously said in the opening of his own documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, "The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been, and always will.” No truer words were said and the proof was in his photographs that were taken primarily around Midtown's streets, using his preferred mode of transport, his bicycle and wearing his now famous blue coat. He has single handily captured so many of the trends that have come and gone throughout the years, that have contributed to recording the ever changing face of New York city.
During the years, Cunningham himself become as much of a celebrity and talking point (if not more so) than some of the people he photographed. Gigi Hadid, on her Instagram after the news of his death broke, wrote, "I remember being almost starstruck the first time Bill stepped in front of me with his camera on the street. I was honored. He's told incredible, iconic, real-life fashion stories with his photos, and his spirit will live forever in the industry. #RIPBillCunningham - a fashion icon."
Cunningham was so revered in the US that in 2008 he was celebrated at Bergdof Goodman, as they erected a life sized mannequin of him in the window. And it wasn't just the United States that honored Cunningham. In 2008 he visited Paris, and during his time there the French Government honored him with the Legion of Honor.
Perhaps his most prestigious honor was the 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, that premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. The documentary opened to rave reviews, however Cunningham himself wasn't so happy about the publicity it brought him. A man who had spent his whole career looking to photograph the people of New York, wasn't thrilled to be the talking point. In fact he thrived in being invisible and felt this was the best way to get the most successful photos. Moving around the streets, fashion events and galas as unnoticed as possible. The reaction Cunningham had to anonymity being removed was reflective of the way he had lived his life. No aspirations for fame, little care for money, choosing instead a simple life up until the end. The Times description of him is perhaps the most apt:
"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), he said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive." - The New York Times.