Legendary New York fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died on Saturday (June 25) after a career that moved fashion’s focus from the runway to the life of the street, and transcended fashion to chronicle our times.
The rich and famous made appearances in his “On The Street” column for the New York Times’s Style section, but most of Cunningham’s favorite recurring subjects were nothing of the sort. He favored people who exhibited daring personal style, like Louise Doktor, an executive secretary in a New York holding company, and he shied away from the staged glamour of Hollywood’s red carpets.
Cunningham left his mark on fashion capitals around the world. The French government awarded him the Legion d’Honneur, and New York named him a Living Landmark, reports the New York Times. A New Yorker profile and documentary film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” followed his rising fame.
Like any good journalist, Cunningham sought to capture compelling moments, rather than be part of them himself, the New York Times reported in his obituary. He remained fiercely independent and committed to his craft throughout his life in spite of the acclaim. “Money’s the cheapest thing,” he once said. “Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
The Times obituary said Cunningham lived a spartan life. He didn’t go to the movies or own a television. His studio above Carnegie Hall held a narrow cot and opened onto a shared bathroom. He pedaled everywhere in the City, outlasting at least 30 bikes over the years.
But Cunningham used fashion as a lens to chronicle his changing times. Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, wrote that “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.”