March 13, 1929 – William John Cunningham Jr.:
“The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
“We all get dressed for Bill.”
Bill Cunningham photographed real people wearing real clothes on the streets of NYC for 50 years. It was his obsession and his way of life. He disparaged it as a “deeply minor thing”. He made it his art form, one that he practiced daily.
Cunningham was born and raised in Boston and never lost his Boston accent. His first exposure to the world of Fashion was at Boston’s Bonwit Teller where he worked a stock boy as a kid. He said his interest in fashion began in church:
”I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.”
He dropped out of Harvard in 1948 and moved to NYC at 19-years-old, again working at Bonwit Teller, this time in the advertising department. Instead of rent for his garret on 52nd Street, he cleaned the building; he worked in a diner counter in exchange for food and bought millinery supplies with his tips.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army, stationed in France, where he had his first experience with French fashion. He returned to NYC in 1953, working as a milliner using the name ”William J”. His clients included Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, and Jacqueline Bouvier (soon to be Kennedy). Encouraged by his clients, he started writing, first for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the Chicago Tribune. He closed his hat shop in 1962. Following the murder of her husband in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy sent Cunningham a red Balenciaga suit. He dyed it black and she wore it to the funeral.
Women’s Wear Daily offered Cunningham a column in the hopes that he would gossip about his celebrity customers. He never did, but his story ideas were original, and the gig lasted into the 1960s. But, he always struggled with writing. Later he said: ”I write with pictures.”
In 1966, he was in London writing fashion copy for the Chicago Tribune, when he met the photographer David Montgomery, who gave him a cheap Olympus Pen-D half-frame camera to use as a notebook.
He photographed a friend, Editta Sherman, in antique outfits against old buildings around NYC, and the results were published as a book, Facades (1978). Cunninghman:
”We would collect all these wonderful dresses in thrift shops and at street fairs. There is a picture of two 1860 taffeta dresses, pre–Civil War–we paid $20 apiece. No one wanted this stuff. A Courrèges I think was $2. The kids were into mixing up stuff, and I was just crazed for all the high fashion.”
He once rushed from a couture runway show to photograph the anti-war protesters outside, and instead of shooting the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, he took pictures of the hippies in Central park. He sold the images to the NY Times.
Cunningham thought little of celebrities or designer labels. He cared about how well garments were worn, like the beautiful cut of a plain coat worn by a striking older woman one winter day in 1978; not realizing at first that it was Greta Garbo. Arthur Gelb, his NY Times editor asked him if he had more of such images. He did. They brought him his first half-page in the paper, which evolved into his regular feature On The Street, with its themed collages composed of individual stunners, and the Evening Hours section for galas and events.
Gelb called these photographs ”a turning point for the Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission.”
Cunningham saw his work as guerrilla assignments, out and about on his Schwinn bike, replaced more than 30 times over the years when stolen or smashed. His extreme shyness did not stop his pursuit of a perfect shot. Cunninghman:
”It’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera, to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands.”
He shot all sorts of subjects, wealthy and working-class, young and old, famous and civilian, all races and subsets. Cunningham was an early, delighted witness of public gay fashion styles. For the first 25 years, Cunningham’s work was a peculiarity in the media. After that, everybody had a camera on their phone, and the Internet to show their pictures, but Cunningham was the first master of street style.
Cunningham was monk-like in countenance and lifestyle. His uniform was a French street-sweeper’s blue jacket and black sneakers. Until 2010, he lived in a small studio above Carnegie Hall, furnished only with file cabinets and a narrow cot, the bathroom was down the hall. He declined dinner and drinks at the events he covered and paid his own work expenses. He said very little about his private life. Cunningham:
”I go out every day. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I’m on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.”
He wasn’t much interested in money and worked freelance until a truck hit his bike in 1994, after which he joined the NY Times staff for the health insurance. He turned down his share from the sale of Details Magazine, which he helped launch in 1982, stating:
”Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty is the most expensive, Once people own you, they can tell you what to do.”
Fame was unimportant too. Filmmaker Richard Press took eight years to persuade Cunningham to cooperate in the making of his terrific documentary Bill Cunningham New York (2010).
He guardedly accepted fashion industry awards and membership in the French Légion d’Honneur, yet he was delighted in being designated a Living Landmark of NYC by its Landmarks Conservancy in 2009. But, what he really liked was taking his daily bike trips around NYC, shooting pictures. In 2012, he received the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence. The invitations to the award ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria read ”Come Dressed for Bill”.
He said of his role at the NY Times:
”I’m just the fluff. I fill around the ads, if we have any”.
He pioneered the paper’s coverage of the LGBTQ community, photographing a fundraising event in the Fire Island Pines in 1979 letting the perceptive reader interpret his photos without words. By the 1990s, he covered AIDS benefits, Act Up protests, pride parades, and Wigstock.
On The Street and Evening Hours ran in the NY Times from February 1989 until shortly before his passing in 2016. For On the Street, Cunningham photographed people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan, often at the corner Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, which the NY Times called Cunningham’s ”main perch”. His focus was on clothing as personal expression. He did not photograph people in the manner of paparazzi. He once explained why he was not joining a group of photographers who swarmed around actor Catherine Deneuve: ‘‘But, she isn’t wearing anything interesting”.
”I am not fond of photographing women who borrow dresses. I prefer parties where women spend their own money and wear their own dresses. When you spend your own money, you make a different choice.”
He loved the way young people expressed themselves with clothing. In 2010, Cunningham said:
”Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.”
For Details Magazine, he wrote about fashion, sometimes filling forty pages an issue. In an essay in 1989, he was the first to apply the word ”deconstructionism” to fashion.
Socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor asked that Cunningham attend her 100th birthday party, the only member of the media invited.
He praised NYC’s bike sharing program when it launched in 2013:
”There are bikes everywhere and it’s perfect for the New Yorkers who have always been totally impatient. What I love, is to see them all on wheels, on their way to work in the morning in their business suits, the women in their office clothes. It has a very humorous and a very practical effect for New Yorkers… I mean, it’s wonderful.”
He broke a kneecap in a bike crash in 2015, but that did not stop him. Only the stroke did that. Cunningham left this world on June 25, 2016, he was 87-years old.
Most of his pictures were never sold. He said:
”I’m really doing this for myself. I’m stealing people’s shadows, so I don’t feel as guilty when I don’t sell them.”