Bill Cunningham, 87Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Zipping around on his trademark bicycle, sitting front-row at Fashion Week or covering a gala at the Metropolitan Opera, Bill Cunningham was a fixture of New York. Wiry and energetic, with white hair and a camera perpetually in front of his face, Cunningham was best known for his decades of work at The New York Times. He published shots of socialites and celebrities, as well as street photography, which allowed him to monitor the real-world progress of fashion trends.
"Fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times."- Bill Cunningham
Cunningham photographs model contestants at a Wilhelmina Models’ open call in June, 2015.
Cunningham shoots a Xuly Bet Fall show during New York Fashion Week in February.
Cunningham attends the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards on Jan. 9, 1989 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Models Nadege du Bospertus and Susan Holmes with Cunningham in 1992.
Cunningham was born in Boston on March 13, 1929, and had his first glimpse of fashion while working as a stockboy at the Bonwit Teller department store. After a brief stint at Harvard, he moved to New York, where he began designing and making hats, supplementing his income by working at a drugstore. His millinery eventually attracted celebrity clients, including Jacqueline Kennedy and Katherine Hepburn.
A self-taught photographer, Cunningham began writing for newspapers and taking photographs of fashion on the streets of New York. His work was first published in the Times in the early 1970s; the paper’s editors realized he had been taking photographs of the elusive Greta Garbo (Cunningham claimed he’d noticed her on the street, not because she was Garbo, but because he admired the cut of her coat).
"I’ve said many times, ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’"- Anna Wintour
Cunningham with Fern Mallis, then the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, at the CFDA Awards, circa 1994.
The current head of the CFDA, Steven Kolb, and Cunningham attend the Carolina Herrera Fall 2013 fashion show during Fashion Week in February, 2013.
Cunningham never sought the spotlight, but it found him, and fashion editors and Times readers alike came to celebrate his work. He was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1983, and his awards included the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture and the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence. In 2009, he was named a “living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
And, finally, the street-fashion documentarian was documented himself, in the feature film “Bill Cunningham New York.” In classic fashion, Cunningham shied away from being center-stage, and avoided watching the documentary. He did attend its opening party at the Museum of Modern Art, however -- he was there to take pictures.