Bill Cunningham, the legendary fashion photographer who spent decades chronicling the shifting tides of street fashion, died Saturday, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press. He was 87. Almost always dressed in a bright blue jacket, Cunningham, an iconic figure who traveled by bicycle, made his name traversing New York’s city blocks, a camera hanging from his neck. He worked for the Times for nearly 40 years, documenting decades of trends, fads and oddities.
Cunningham, who had been hospitalized recently after having a stroke, began his fashion career in millinery, recalls Vogue, and after he returned from being drafted during the Korean war, commenced his work as a fashion reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and later for Women’s Wear Daily. At the Times, his street style column, “On the Street,” which first appeared in 1978, became a mainstay of the style section. In a 2002 article he penned for the paper, Cunningham said he always tried to be as discreet as possible because “you get more natural pictures that way.”
Cunningham elaborated, writing: “I suppose, in a funny way, I’m a record keeper. More than a collector. I’m very aware of things not of value but of historical knowledge. 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 […] Everybody I saw I was able to record, and that’s what it’s all about. I realized that you didn’t know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy. I realized that the street was the missing ingredient.”
As for what Mr. Cunningham did differently, he said: “There’s nothing new about this idea. People had been photographing the street since the camera was invented … Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were doing a similar thing, but they photographed only name people at society events. And Women’s Wear has been photographing socialites and celebrities for years. But the difference for me is I don’t see the people I photograph. All I see are clothes. I’m only interested in people who look good. I’m looking for the stunners.”
“We all dress for Bill,” Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has said. The New Yorker dubbed Cunningham’s recurring feature, “New York’s high-school yearbook, an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked … the column, in its way, is as much a portrait of New York at a given moment in time as any sociological tract or census — a snapshot of the city.”