Bill Cunningham: Legendary Street Style Photographer Behind New York City’s ‘Unofficial Yearbook’ Dies

The New York Times’ iconic street style photographer, Bill Cunningham, has died at the age of 87.

According to the Times, Cunningham died on Saturday in a hospital in Manhattan.

“We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have a lost a friend,” the Publisher and Chairman of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., said, according to People.

Cunningham, who worked for the New York Times for about 40 years, was hospitalized about a week ago after suffering a stroke, Page Six reported. He reportedly died from complications resulting from the stroke.

Cunningham is known for his column with the Times “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” where he keenly chronicled the fashion trends of people in New York for many years. Unlike other popular photographers, Cunningham, who is considered one of the pioneers of modern street fashion photography, did not focus on celebrities, but often turned his lens to “ordinary” people.

“I don’t really see people – I see clothes,” Cunningham told the New Yorker in 2009. “People say everybody’s a slob. Ridiculous! There are marvelously dressed women you see at a quarter to eight, going to business. When people say fashion is no more, they’re ridiculous! It’s as good as it ever was.”

Cunningham’s work has been widely recognized. In 2008, France’s Ministry of Culture awarded him with the Order of Arts and Letters for his role in spreading the arts around the world. Bill Cunningham was also named a living landmark by the New York Landmark Conservancy in 2009 and received the Carnegie Hall Media of Excellence award in 2012, according to NPR.

A life-sized mannequin was once created in honor of Cunningham at a Bergdorf Goodman outlet in New York, according to the Times.

“I’m delighted, but also a little embarrassed, because you try to be invisible, and this blows your cover!” he told the New Yorker about the mannequin.

Cunningham has also been celebrated at several exhibitions and parties held in his honor. In 2010, a documentary was released about the life and work of the legendary photographer titled, Bill Cunningham New York. The film highlighted his ascetic lifestyle and philosophy of fashion.

Bill Cunningham (William John Cunningham) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 13, 1929, to an Irish Catholic family, according to the New Yorker. He had three siblings.

In an autobiographical article he wrote for the Times in 2002, Cunningham revealed that his first experience with fashion came from working as a stockboy for a Bonwit Teller store in Boston. In 1948, at the age of 19, Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and made his way to New York City to live with his uncle. He also worked with his uncle in Bonwit Teller’s advertising department.

In 1949, Cunningham moved out of his uncle’s home and rented a shop on 52nd Street, where he lived and made hats for sale under the name “William J.”

Cunningham left fashion briefly after he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. But he returned in 1953 and revived his hat-making business.

Cunningham’s journey to being a fashion photographer was not straight-forward. He worked as a fashion writer for a few publications (notably the Chicago Tribune) in the 1960s before veering into photography.

The Times hired Cunningham in 1978 after he submitted a photo of actress Greta Garbo.

Cunningham went on to become one of New York’s most recognizable fashion figures, documenting trends at high-end fashion shows and street corners.

Bill Cunningham.
“The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows,” he wrote in the Times. “You find information for readers so they can visualize themselves.”

As news spread about the death of Bill Cunningham, many fans (some of whom he photographed) have been outpouring with condolences to his family. No announcement has been made about the plans for Cunningham’s burial yet.

[Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows]