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Cunningham, Bill [William] (J.)free

(b Boston, MA, Mar 13, 1929; d New York, NY, Jun 25, 2016).
  • Chloe Chapin

American photographer.Cunningham was an American fashion photographer known for his weekly “On the Street” column in the New York Times, which ran between 1978 and 2016. Though he photographed decades of designer fashion shows and society events, his primary focus was on the pedestrians of New York City. Unimpressed with wealth or celebrity, he sought out individual subjects whose original styles and flair he believed captured the fashion sensibility of the moment.

Originally a millinery designer, Cunningham was drafted during the Korean War and served until 1953. After his return to the United States, he worked at the dress shop Chez Ninon, then as a fashion reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Women’s Wear Daily, before joining the New York Times in the 1970s. Cunningham held himself to a strict code of ethics; he only documented society events that were fundraisers for charities, and refused payment for much of his work. A devout parishioner at the church of St. Thomas More, he lived a Spartan lifestyle in a studio apartment at Carnegie Hall that had no private kitchen or bathroom but was crowded with metal filing cabinets filled with a lifetime of unpublished photographs. Cunningham was an intensely private individual, with a notorious aversion to being in the spotlight. His working uniform consisted of black sneakers and a kind of cheap blue smock worn by French street sweepers that he would purchase on trips to Paris to photograph designer collections, the costume topped with a backwards newsboy cap and a poncho in the rain. He rode his bicycle everywhere around the city, often attending multiple social events in one evening.

With the advent of digital news formats, Cunningham’s photo essays were recorded and published as short videos online, his own voice describing the fashions he documented with child-like enthusiasm. His insight was notable for its emphasis not on individual designers, but on colors, patterns, materials, and silhouettes. He particularly gravitated toward outlandish or eccentric styles, and his columns featured women of all ages, as well as men, teenagers, children, and downtown artists in any and all weather conditions. He was also an early chronicler of the Gay Rights movement and downtown artists in New York.

Cunningham was notable for his ability to mirror both sartorial and social changes to his audience as they were happening, without judgment or forecasting, with an enduring sense of wonder for the present moment. Like fashion itself, Cunningham embraced new forms of expression as representative of the zeitgeist.

In 2009 Cunningham was granted the title of a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and was the subject of a documentary about his life and work in 2010. After his death in 2016, the corner of 5th Ave and 57th Street, his favorite place to people-watch, was renamed “Bill Cunningham Corner.”

Writings

  • “Bill Cunningham on Bill Cunningham: The photographer on what he did, why he did it, and how it all began.” NY Times (Jun 25, 2016).

Bibliography

  • Collins, Lauren. “Man on the Street: Bill Cunningham Takes Manhattan.” New Yorker (Mar 16, 2009).
  • Bill Cunningham New York. Directed by Richard Press. Doc Club, 2010.
  • Bernstein, Jacob. “Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87.” NY Times (Jun 25, 2016).