On June 25, the fashion world lost an icon. New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, known for his weekly photo spread "On the Streets," died following a stroke at age 87.
During his 40-year career with the Times, Cunningham captured New York’s most fashionable residents every day. Reflecting on what kind of legacy a longstanding figure such as Mr Cunningham leaves behind is tricky, but upon further inspection yields two prominent qualities: his lack of self-interest and utmost dedication to the search of beauty. In an industry with an increasing amount of peacocking and look-at-me personas, a true gentleman that was fuelled by genuine passion for capturing others was a rarity.
“I started photographing people on the street during World War II. I used a little box Brownie. Nothing too expensive. The problem is I’m not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I’m too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I’m not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That’s all there is to it”, he said in 2002.
He was known to dislike being the subject of attention, claiming never to have seen the documentary about him, Bill Cunningham New York. That was his mode, simply finding enjoyment in doing his work.
In realizing that the street was the missing ingredient, and that it was just as important to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy, Mr Cunningham became one of the original street style photographers.
"He's never missed a day of work. He worked seven days a week," his assistant, John Kurdewan, told Business Insider Mr Kurdewan said that even in the hospital, toward the end, Mr Cunningham was counting the photos for a layout of his Evening Hours column.
"We all get dressed for Bill", proclaims Vogue editor Anna Wintour in the 2010 documentary. He loved shooting everyone from uptown regulars, such as Ms Wintour and Brooke Astor who appear in the film, to more eccentric downtown fixtures, as long as there was individual style. He was not keen on celebrities, and apparently refrained from saying Kanye West’s name in the most recent Met Gala video, referring to him as “one man”, according to the Times.
A colleague, esteemed fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote: “The difficulty of describing what made Bill such a unique talent is that he didn’t conform to any modern category. He worked for the Times, with its many layers and powerful terrains, yet he functioned as a free agent, and in some ways bent the institution to suit him. He knew almost nothing about email or social media — had no interest. Yet over the course of his 50 years with the Times, his photographs revealed an almost infinite number of ideas about culture, fashion, race, and beauty. He lived like a monk, in the same corner of New York for the majority of his adult life, and largely limited his travels to work-related jaunts to Newport, Paris, and Long Island, yet he basically was the eye that recorded a changing world.”
In a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Mr Cunningham waited outside street corners, restaurants and fashion shows, and cycled up and down New York, Paris and London, in hopes of capturing a moment of fleeting beauty. According to the Times, Mr Cunningham’s funeral program ended with a quote from the photographer himself: “It is as true today as it ever was. He who seeks beauty shall find it.